A Tragic Legacy of War

A Tragic Legacy of War

The transfer of works of art from vanquished to victor is as old as warfare itself.” 

                                                            . . . Lynn Nicolas, author of Rape of Europa

I open with this quote because it so aptly describes the events that began in the art world long before the outbreak of the second World War.  Hitler’s dream of a pure Germanic Empire included works of art and he determinedly set about purging those pieces he considered unsuitable.

“Entartete Kunst,” German for degenerate art

What was unsuitable?  Works that were “unfinished” or abstract, that did not depict reality.  Vasily Kandinsky.  Works by Jews. Camille Pisarro.  Works by leftists.  George Grosz.  Degenerate art they were called and exhibitions of them were set up to show the German people what not to like and admire.  Shows like “Entartete Kunst” in Munich in 1937 drew thousands.

Hermann Goering was one of the first in Hitler’s regime to recognize the commercial value of some of these works of art and amassed thousands of works for his own personal collection.   His “agent” took Van Gogh’s “Portrait of Dr. Gachet,” purged from a museum in Frankfurt, to sell in Holland.  The painting eventually found its way to New York and was sold for $82.5 million.

Alfred Rosenberg, a Nazi ideologue, set up the ERR, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, to systematically collect – confiscate or steal, to be more precise – works of art and artifacts from state museums, citizens and Jews, in particular.  Millions of pieces.

As the war came to an end, the Allies closed in.  With them were a handful of art-specialists called “monument men.”  Their job was to locate and salvage these precious works of art from Germany, Italy and France.  Every day these officers would find thousands of pieces on the verge of destruction.  They saved what they could; still many disappeared through looting.

The fate of thousands of objects is still unknown, even today.  One of those precious pieces is the subject of my book, Deadly Provenance.  It is Van Gogh’s painting, “Still Life: Vase with Oleanders,” which vanished in 1944.  Was it destroyed or is it hidden in someone’s secret art collection?  In someone’s garage waiting for a sale, perhaps?  Will it ever surface to please the world once more?

Can science and technology assist in authenticating the painting if ever it is found?  And if so, will it be restored to its rightful owner?  Provenance will tell.

Transforming an Idea Into a Novel

Transforming an Idea Into a Novel

I am about to embark on my seventh novel.  (Five books are currently in the marketplace, number six has been entered in the Malice Domestic competition.)

As you may know, I write historical mysteries that are solved today with modern science (had to combine my science museum background with my love of history!)  I’ve been often asked how I choose the topics for my book and the simple answer is this.  I select a time period and a real event in history to construct a mystery around.  In earlier books, I’ve used the Civil War, the Salem witch trials, the Nazi confiscation of art, and the tragic fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City in 1911, as backdrops.

The modern story lines utilize current technology to resolve the ancient crimes: digital photography, arson forensics, scientific techniques for art authentication, and questioned document analysis, are examples.

For my next mystery, I take the reader back to the Spanish Inquisition, a turbulent time in world history, where heretics were forced to convert to Christianity or exiled from Spain and Portugal.

My main character will be Frank Mead, a New York City homicide detective who has appeared in each of my books.  He will have a new romantic interest, Rachel Bejarano, a research librarian at the NYC Public Library, who is on a quest to track down a mysterious necklace that is left to her by her Sephardic ancestors. (Rachel appears briefly in book six, Hart of Madness.)  Together they trace her ancestors to a small town in Spain (Cordoba, perhaps?) and the ancient Jewish quarter.

However, murder and mayhem stalks them every step of the way, from Madrid, where they start their investigation, to the glorious palace, Alhambra, in Granada. 

I’m sure you are chuckling as you read this, thinking, “Ahh, the writer gets to take a trip to Spain.”  Indeed.  Ain’t it grand?

Now the work begins:

Create the historic and modern story lines.

Draw the character sketches.

Research, research, research the locations, the history, the authentic characters of the time, the language, the food, the clothing, et al of 15th Century Spain.

For me, this is the most exciting time in the writing process: molding the essence of an idea into a rich and dramatic story. Writers, you know exactly what I mean.

I welcome ideas and thoughts about your process.

The Christmas Truce

The Christmas Truce

It’s become a tradition for me to send this story out every Christmas.  I hope you enjoy.

When it started, World War I was predicted to last only a few weeks.  (The same was true of the Civil War, by the way.) Instead, by December of 1914, WWI had already claimed nearly a million lives. In fact, over fifteen million died in a war that dragged on for four miserable years.

But a remarkable thing happened on December 24, 1914.  The front fell silent except for the singing of Silent Night.  A truce!  There are many examples of truces during wars, but none as famous as this one.  The Christmas Truce of 1914.

In the Ypres region of Belgium on Christmas Eve, guns stopped, leaving a deathly silence across the fields.  Then suddenly the British watched in astonishment as Germans began to set tiny trees along their trench lines.  Soon a familiar tune with unfamiliar words carried across No Man’s Land, the battered and desolate space between the enemies.  Silent Night.  Stille Nacht.

Soon the British were singing along with the Germans.  Soldiers on both sides crawled out of their trenches to meet in the middle and greet their enemy.  They exchanged cigarettes and souvenirs.  Perhaps a drink or two.  And they collected their dead and wounded, carrying them back to their respective sides.

Peace for the day.  Only one day because the next day they were back killing each other.  Is there something wrong with this picture?

The story of the Christmas Truce came to my attention after reading the non-fiction, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918, by Adam Hochschild, an amazing story of WWI.  I highly recommend. http://www.amazon.com/End-All-Wars-Rebellion-1914-1918/dp/B008PIC0T8/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1356046840&sr=1-1&keywords=to+end+all+wars

I’ll leave you with this thought.   If Christmas can bring together mortal enemies for a day, why not for a week, a month, a year or longer?  Or forever?

I hope you click on the youtubes below.  They will make you sad and happy but most of all hopeful.  Wishing you a happy holiday and a prosperous and healthy New Year.

Belleau Wood: Christmas Truce by Garth Brooks. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xy9lg0aAhlE

Christmas Truce 1914, Music with captions to tell the story. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsCpLMPI7IY

Behind the Christmas Story: The Christmas Truce http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mgLcvjA8NDk

Christmas Truce of 1914. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p05E_ohaQGk

Not So Pure Puritans

Not So Pure Puritans

I found this article particularly interesting with the holidays coming and its ties to my research into my mystery about the Salem Witch Trials, Pure Lies.  Sexual obsession is not a concept usually associated with Puritans, but this sheds light on a grim and repressed period of time in American history.

“America’s Thanksgiving holiday goes back at least 388 years to the year following the arrival of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts in 1620. The Pilgrims were among a number of sects called Puritans, and like many Puritan sects, the Pilgrims came to America essentially because they thought 17th Century England much too bawdy.(1) That England of the time was bawdy — a raucous bawdiness in full bloom — there’s no doubt. But the idea that the Puritans (and Pilgrims) suffered from religious persecution in England is probably a myth. What they suffered from was unease (and maybe too much temptation) at the general licentiousness of English life.

So various Puritan colonies were established in America, colonies with dictatorial repression of daily life, mostly of sexual behavior. It’s an American cultural heritage that few Americans ever talk about, except maybe when they read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a novel about the miseries of an adulterous couple in a Puritan community. Our custom is for three or four generations of family to sit down at a Thanksgiving dinner with hardly a memory that what the Pilgrims and other Puritans were all about was sexual obsession.

A set of ideas about human sexual behavior so strong that the ideas result in strict rules that govern a community by threat of physical punishment easily morphs from philosophy into obsession — and that’s exactly what happened once the Puritans came into control of laws in their colonies in the New World.

The background of the Puritan obsession with sex is a fascinating thread in the history of Western culture. The obsession apparently originated in a close literal reading of the Bible, a fervent belief that the main causes of the suffering of all mankind were 1) the disobedience of Adam and Eve in seeking knowledge of sex, 2) the shame of their nakedness, and 3) their sexual desire for each other. Taking these causes as axioms for social doctrine about sexual behavior led the literalists (fundamentalists) easily into social tyranny. The sexual act itself became the “original sin” — an irony, since the sexual act was the only means available to produce progeny to replace those who died.

The old New England children’s rhyme tells it all: “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.”

These ideas certainly predated the Puritans, since hatred of women as sexual saboteurs, revulsion at the sex act, and derision of marriage are on nearly every page of the writings of St. Paul and St. Augustine. The great Protestant reformers Luther, Calvin and Knox did little to change these attitudes about sexual behavior, and more or less enforced them. The classical Christian view was that any act of sexual love, in or out of marriage, was a betrayal of God. By the time the Puritans arrived, the classical view had been modified: sexuality in marriage was acceptable, but sexuality of any kind outside marriage was a sin and a crime, punishable with fines, whipping, branding, banishment, and even death.

And the origins? The fervor against sexuality evidently originated in ancient Hebrew law, the ancient fear that man was weakened by sexual intercourse, ancient references to the sex act as the “little death” and a form of castration. In their morning prayers, Orthodox Jews still proclaim, “I thank Thee, Lord, for not having created me a woman.”

Sexuality was inherently evil, the sex act an abomination and a sin, women morally inferior and sources of temptation. If the sex act was needed to produce a new generation, let it be accomplished without lust. So much for the mechanics of Darwinian sexual selection. From a biological standpoint, it’s a wonder the Western world did not go extinct before the Renaissance. But it’s no wonder at all that countless women (and many men) were driven into madness by the incompatibility between the social tyranny of their Judeo-Christian cultural heritage and their evolved biology.

At the Thanksgiving table we think of turkey, children, and grandparents. Let it be so. We need the comforts, especially in our current time. But we should also be thankful that we’ve come out of the darkness of the past, the darkness of ignorance and social tyranny. That too is something that needs the giving of thanks.

Note (1). Whatever “persecution” the Pilgrims suffered in Europe was political rather than religious. The Pilgrims were Puritan separatists. The sect of Puritans who came to be known as Pilgrims wanted complete separation from the Anglican Church. Other Puritan sects did not demand separation. It was the vocal opposition of Pilgrim leaders to the Anglican Church and the King of England that caused their problems with government. The Pilgrims left England for Holland, were unhappy in Holland, and eventually achieved financing by English investors and migrated to America.”

Written by Dan Agin and posted 3/18/2010, updated 11/17/2011.  Reprinted from the Huffington Post.

Fiction Can Infuse History With New Life

Fiction Can Infuse History With New Life

154 years ago last July, the brutal battle at Gettysburg was fought. In only three days, 51,000 men were killed, wounded or gone missing; 5,000 horses were slaughtered on the battlefield.

I visited Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to gather details for my book, Time Exposure.  I roamed the sites of its bloody history, Cemetery Ridge, Devils Den, Big Round Top, Little Round Top.  The excursion provided me with background elements to set the scene.  But it also elicited dark, yet poignant emotions to help me paint the picture of the grim aftermath.

I used the technique of letters and diary entries to bring out the human side of the Civil War. I excerpt here a letter from my fictional Civil War photographer, Joseph Thornhill, to the love of his life, Sara Kelly.  All other characters and events are real history.  This letter might well have been written at the time.

July 3, 1863

My Dearest Sara,

I felt I had to write you today, after three of the bloodiest days I have ever witnessed.  I must get it off my mind, and I might not even post this letter, lest you be terribly offended.  But I feel I must unburden myself somehow.

Rumors have it that General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia suffered great losses, maybe one third of their forces dead, wounded or captured.  The Union Army is said to have lost a good deal, maybe one quarter of their troops, but it is safe to say we won the battle of Gettysburg.  Lee’s army is retreating back to the South and Mead’s men are elated.  Finally, victory, and an important one.

It is sad to think that this particular battle may have been fought over something as simple as shoes.  There was rumored to be a large supply of shoes in the town of Gettysburg and on July 1 an officer under Ewell’s command led his men there to confiscate these shoes.  Unfortunately for them, they ran into the Union Army.

I was slightly wounded today, some shrapnel lacerating my arm.  But don’t worry.  The doctors have bandaged me up and say I will be fine, no permanent damage, and I take a bit of laudanum for the pain.  Luckily my camera, which was caught in the crossfire suffered no harm.

I must admit that until now I had no real concept of the power our modern weaponry wields.  The force of the injury knocked me clean off my feet.  I think this experience will prove useful to me in my work.

The wound has not stopped me from working, however, although it is a bit difficult with one arm in a brace.  I rely on my apprentice more.  I’ve been busy photographing the town and its people.  Now I’ll begin, once again, to shoot the battlefield remains.  I am steeling myself to this task slowly, but have not made much progress.

Both Alex and Tim O’Sullivan–you remember, I mentioned this fine young man and competent photographer to you–will arrive in the next few days.  I look forward to working with them.

Now, other gruesome scenes await my camera.  Embalming surgeons, as they call themselves, have arrived.  Although many of the dead soldiers are hastily buried where they fall, many end up in mass graves.  Some are later exhumed and buried in military cemeteries, whether they’ve been identified or not– often with the headstone reading only:  “A Union Soldier” or “A Confederate Soldier.”   It is hard to imagine–dying in the name of one’s country but that country not even knowing your name.

On a lighter note, I have also photographed some of the Union soldiers and officers after the final skirmish, and they were truly in high spirits–dirty, sweaty, exhausted, some wounded, but all euphoric.  There was optimism in the air and hope, hope that this war would soon end.  But for now we must deal with the brutal aftermath of this battle.  Hospital tents crowd the countryside and the small population of Gettysburg is inundated with the sick and wounded.  I doubt this town will ever be the same.

Tomorrow is July 4.  I wonder if anyone, in the midst of all this furor, will appreciate the irony that this day marks the eighty-seventh year of our nation’s birth.

I miss you, my dearest, and long to see you this Christmas. You are always in my thoughts as I pray I am in yours.

Yours ever truly,

Joseph

 While letter or diary writing is a device to take the reader back in time, it is an opportunity for the writer to truly bring the past alive.  Ideas welcome.

Writing “Living” History

Writing “Living” History

Time Exposure is a mystery that takes place during the Civil War.  I wanted readers to abandon the present and immerse themselves in those brutal, tumultuous years of the mid-nineteenth century.  Scene by scene, chapter by chapter.  I wasn’t there, so how could I paint a picture of that time period, accurately, vividly, and with painstaking detail?

Research, of course, but research using primary sources whenever possible.  What does that mean?  There are many books written about the Civil War.  About the battles, about the people, about the politics — the operative word being “about.”   These sources are written today by historians looking back in time.  I wanted to go back there myself.  How?

Primary sources are the ones that deliver the information firsthand.  Photographs are an excellent way to learn about the past.  In my case, tens of thousands of Civil War photographs are available, yes, through books and online, but also at the Library of Congress, where there are drawers upon drawers filled with folders of photos taken back then.  The originals, if you can imagine!

Other primary sources of an historic period are letters or journals.  Using the Civil War as an example, there are books of letters to and from soldiers and their loved ones.  If you use credible authors, ie: Ken Burns, you can be sure these are the true words of the people of the time.  If you are really lucky, you may be able to track down a diary written from the time period.  A friend of mine’s ancestor was a soldier in the War and he passed down some interesting paraphernalia (no journal, unfortunately.)

Very important primary sources are books written by someone of the time period.  An example, which helped me shape my scene at the Union Hotel Hospital, was a precious thin book called Hospital Sketches, by Louisa May Alcott.  Louisa May was actually a minor character in my book.  If you ever wondered what it would be like to volunteer as a nurse in a hospital during the Civil War, listen to Louisa May:

My three days experience had begun with a death, and, owing to the defalcation (I had to look this one up!) of another nurse, a somewhat abrupt plunge into the superintendence of a ward containing forty beds, where I spent my shining hours washing faces, serving rations, giving medicine, and sitting in a very hard chair, with pneumonia on one side, diphtheria on the other, two typhoids opposite, and a dozen dilapidated patients, hopping, lying and lounging about, all staring more or less at the new ‘nuss,’ who suffered untold agonies, but concealed them under as matronly as a spinster could assume, and blundered through her trying labors with a Spartan firmness, which I hope they appreciated, but am afraid they didn’t.”

From this one simple paragraph, I learned about the hospital, the patients, the illnesses and Louisa May’s (and other nurses’?) attitude toward them all.

In addition to Louisa May Alcott’s writings, I examined photographs, I read letters, poems and the words of songs written during the time.  As I kept reading, I got a feel for the rhythm of speech of the period.  I learned some of the basics: what the people of the time ate, drank, smoked, what they wore, how they amused themselves when they weren’t killing each other on the field, what their sex lives were like (there are some bawdy postcards out there!)  Essentially, I learned how they lived and, sadly, how they died.

Bottom line: If you write historical stories, (or even modern stories about places you’re not familiar with,) what you don’t know can hurt you.  The best way to find out what things were really like, is to do your research through the eyes of those who lived it.

There are no shortcuts.  Ideas welcome.