Touching History

June 29, 2010


A few days ago I received a book in the mail from a man who personally knew Hannie Schaft, the young, beautiful, gun-toting Dutch woman who the Gestapo – desperately searching for her — called “The Girl with the Red Hair,” and who Queen Wilhelmina designated, “The Symbol of the Resistance.”  And I feel like I’ve touched a piece of history.  Again.

Since November, 2008, I’ve been writing a book for the Chicago Review Press about female WWII resisters.   CRP gave me only 12-14 months to research and write 26 2,000-word profiles, plus an introduction on each country represented. 

That wasn’t a lot of time, especially for a first-time author.  And so I was even more stressed when I discovered, six months into the project, that my overworked husband wasn’t going to have time to locate the necessary photographs — at least one for each woman — as he had promised. Even if I could find the time, where was I going to look?  Getty and Corbis didn’t seem to have what I was looking for and I couldn’t afford to spend $300.00 per chapter anyway.

I began my grope in the dark.  The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem had a few that I needed, so that was a start.  Although the USHMM had access to photos of Sophie Scholl — the German university student involved with the White Rose resistance pamphlets — they wouldn’t release them to me until I had written permission from an individual living on the west coast.

Dr. George J. Wittenstein, a practicing physician, was pleasant but firm on the phone.  Since so many erroneous things had been written about the Scholls, he told me, in a still-heavy German accent, I had to send him the chapter by mail before he would release the photographic rights.  My chapter went out by snail mail the following day.

Dr. Wittenstein mailed me back some corrections and urged me to purchase Sophie Scholl and the White Rose, a new book whose title had previously belonged to an erroneous book on the same subject but which had recently had undergone a sound and thorough gutting by a new team of writers and researchers.  I purchased, I read, I rewrote, I mailed back.  He liked it.

Aside from now having in my hands a chapter of meticulous accuracy (and one of the most appealing chapters in the book, I believe, since a portion of each White Rose leaflet makes a chronological appearance in sidebar form), I had the overwhelming consciousness of having exchanged letters and telephone calls with one of the German university students who had kept the embarrassed Gestapo on the run for months during one of the most dramatic resistance efforts in Nazi-occupied Germany.  Dr. George J. was in fact Jürgen Wittenstein, an editor of several White Rose leaflets and the person who had snapped the famed picture of pensive Sophie centered between her brother Hans and friend Christoph Probst in the Munich East train station, the photo which will now be part of my book.

In the ensuing months, I spoke to Diet Eman, a Dutch resister whose memoir I had read a decade earlier, and she sent me her own personal photographs for inclusion in her chapter.  Nelly Trocmé Hewett called me on the phone when she heard about my project, making sure I had the correct information since so many others had made factual errors in writing about her parents, Magda and Andre Trocmé, famed leaders of the Le Chambon-sur-Lignon rescue operation.  Muriel Phillips Engelman — a witty former army nurse who refused to leave her post while being deluged with buzz bombs during the Battle of the Bulge – became a lively email correspondent (and it is she who is leading the troupe of army nurses who adorn the cover of my book). I spoke to Barbara Moorman, the daughter of Johtje Vos, who was a little girl – one of the towheads in the fairly well-known Vos family/rescued Jews USHMM photograph — when her mother and father sheltered Jews and “onderduikers” in their Dutch home and she sent me a copy of Johtje’s hitherto unobtainable memoir.  I was in the midst of a flurry of email correspondence with a man who held the key to Marlene Dietrich’s wartime photographs before I realized that I was communicating with her grandson.

All these communications took time away from writing, certainly, but they provided me with crucial additional information and something else: an electrifyingly exciting experience, a history geek’s heaven, a living connection to history.  I also managed to get the book done on time. Almost.

And a few days ago, I received a book that has information on Hannie Schaft — “the girl with the red hair” — which I wasn’t able to find anywhere else (and although it’s late in the game, I have editorial permission to use its contents to add a few key quotes to her chapter).  Paul Elsinga, my Schaft connection, was 10 years old when a sick and grieving Hannie stayed in his home before she initiated her second wave of resistance work.  Paul approved my chapter with one exception: Hannie’s hair was not red but auburn.  You see, he knew her personally.

I’d love to do this type of work again but that really depends on how well the book does and there’s no predicting these things.  Whatever happens, I hope that come next March a few readers, at least, will encounter the stories of these women and find that touching history is not necessarily a dry, dusty experience.  Perhaps they will discover instead that the past was once someone’s living, breathing present, in vibrant color, and overflowing with hopes and fears, convictions, and choices.


Robin Hood, Then and Now

May 31, 2010

My sons Jeremy and Aaron needed to own the Errol Flynn Robin Hood video, I knew that from the beginning.  I recalled the beloved film from my childhood when I occasionally viewed it on the Frasier Thomas “Family Classics” show which featured golden films every Sunday afternoon.  So when my boys exhibited a fascination with plastic swords, I knew they had to see it done for real: I went to the Metro Golden Memories store and purchased the 1938 version of “The Adventures of Robin Hood.”

They weren’t disappointed.  It was clean, non-violent (fatally stabbed characters miraculously shed no blood), and those sword fights!  The boys were hooked and I eventually made them red “Will Scarlett” medieval capes and shirts which they wore whenever we watched the film.  I used to love watching their little faces while Rathbone and Flynn clanked and clashed their swords to Korngold’s swelling score.  It was pure magic and they were completely oblivious to my adoring gaze.

So I thought it very appropriate that on the day of Jeremy’s high school graduation – technically the last day of his childhood — part of our celebratory activities included a trip to the Lake Theater to watch the latest cinematic version of the Robin Hood legend.

I knew that Aaron – my eldest son and an opinionated film/TV critic — would be thrilled that I finally liked, nay, loved, a Ridley Scott film.  “The Gladiator” was evil unleashed, depressing to the max, without any hope or ray of light.  Yes, Aaron, it was well done, but when the great Richard Harris is smothered during the first 20 minutes (soon after giving a speech which nearly caused me to hear the strains of the Camelot musical), when the disturbing threat of incest hangs in the air, and when the best possible denouement is the death of the suffering protagonist, unless it’s a film about Christ, no, I can’t say that I like the film.

This latest Ridley Scott film was entirely enjoyable.  Yes, there are enormous dollops of evil, but when you’re dealing with the Robin Hood legend – even if your name is Ridley Violence-as-Art-Form Scott — the good is always stronger and just around the corner.  The new plot points – I thought — were brilliantly conceived (hey, it’s a legend, not a facts-laden non-fiction), and the settings were truly medieval in appearance.  I kept thinking how much time and effort activities must have taken back in those days and that’s not something that crossed my mind once during my repeated viewings of the beloved Errol Flynn flick.

And that is a concept quite appropriate for a young man on the verge of adulthood. Life is much more difficult and evil harder to overcome than most films made in 1938 would have you believe.  But life, even adult life, has its magical moments, and one of those is sharing the beloved Robin Hood legend with a loved son, whether he’s sitting in front of the video player wearing a red cape or whether he’s in the fifth row of the theater, sporting a beard and but still wearing an enchanted expression. Yes, I peeked.

A Wreck Among the Cars

May 30, 2010

He had a trimmed white beard, was wearing a white t-shirt, and was hobbling his way between the rows of cars stopped on Harlem just north of Roosevelt with a Styrofoam cup in his hand.  He walked like a very old cowboy.  No one put anything in his cup.  He was moving so slowly that I doubted that he would make it to my car before the light changed.  I did wonder, however, how I was going to keep from hitting him, he being two entire lanes from the curb and his cowboy straddle being so wide.

The light changed.  By the time I was able to move, he was beside the car directly in front of me.  Before I could even lift my foot off the brake, he suddenly moved in front of my car and pointed his finger at me, shouting angrily, “you!”  He passed by, then proceeded to point angrily to the car stopped in the lane beside me.

I felt as if I’d been singled out by an angry wreck of humanity.  I drove off with a slight thrill of fear coursing through my body.

My Summer with Ernest Hemingway

May 21, 2010

(This article was originally published in Oak Park’s Wednesday Journal, fall of 2007.)

No, this isn’t a confession of something decades old.  Yes, we were on the same planet for a couple of years, but I was toddling around the sidewalks of Berwyn, Illinois in diapers when Ernest Hemingway shot himself in Ketchum, Idaho.  My summer with him was this past one, the summer that just recently breezed  – or rather, whipped – through our muggy streets.

It’s not that I was completely unaware of Hemingway before last summer.  For the past three years The Hemingway Foundation has hired me and my husband to sing at their Boxing Day event.  Before that, I had a few brief high-school brushes with Hemingway’s writing which left me with the clear, haunting details of a story called “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” the vague recollection of having read “The Old Man and the Sea” and the distinct memory of some clipped prose describing a hunter named Nick Adams who went camping to soothe an unspoken grief.

These encounters, though somewhat entertaining, were hardly the stuff of solid friendship and so our flimsy acquaintance could hardly have been expected to withstand what came next.  My post college delight in the short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the concomitant knowledge that Hemingway had kicked his alcoholic friend when he was down sealed my negative opinion forever:  I root for underdogs, not bullies.  Besides, I prefer elegant prose about flappers and rich boys over short sentences describing the detailed actions of pained and possibly misogynistic hunters.

Singing Dickensian Christmas Carols at the Hemingway Birthplace Home for the past three years softened my opinion of Ernest just a bit.  Surely, a man born and raised in these lovely rooms must have retained something of their Victorian charm even if he had evolved into someone who placed an equal value on drinking, shooting lions and trading up wives.  Should I give him another chance?  Alas, nothing in the elegant Boxing Day event – the gracious volunteers, the delicious treats, the fascinating readings, the informative tours, or even the check from the Foundation — brought me one step closer to reading Hemingway.   I was still rooting for Fitzgerald and would not crack one book of his foe.

But last summer, I was thrown together with Ernest in earnest and it was time to give the man and the writer a fair appraisal. Two of my children were in need of volunteer hours and the Hemingway Foundation – always looking for volunteers – came to the rescue.  I decided to go along for the ride.  What did I discover? 

That people come from all over the world to visit the Hemingway Museum on any given day but that very occasional groups of American women – who react with marked suspicion to explanations of ticket pricing – have come only to use the bathroom.  That the Hemingway Archives holds some very interesting materials which present even more interesting volunteer opportunities.  That Hemingway loved cats.  That Hemingway’s mother, Grace, was a founding member of the Oak Park Art League (another lovely, volunteer-friendly locale we discovered this summer).  That someone should write a biography of Grace Hall Hemingway.  That anyone who loves cats can’t be all bad.   That watching Jack and Patrick Hemingway cut up while answering audience questions (“Roundtable Discussion,” July 21, 1999) causes the viewer to (almost) sense the gregarious presence of their father.  That the MIT students who sit under the lectures of author Joe Haldeman – the designated speaker at last summer’s Hemingway birthday party – are very fortunate.  That Howard Hawks obviously didn’t have Hemingway’s novel To Have and To Have Not in mind when he created the film of the same title.  That although Catherine Barkley, the female protagonist of A Farewell to Arms, was based on Hemingway’s first love, Agnes von Kurowsky, she also bears a striking resemblance to Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley.  That Hemingway was apparently regretting Hadley decades later when he wrote the beautiful memoir A Moveable Feast.  That I’m not certain what the exact grammatical implications are in beginning umpteen consecutive sentences with the same word.

So I’ll stop and say, in short,  that I finally discovered what all the fuss was about: Hemingway had a passion for writing that was matched only by his passion for living, a writer whose enormous characters often blurred the line between autobiography and fiction.  So what if I still enjoy Fitzgerald more?  Hemingway’s writing, although in a completely different style, is at least as good, and his output ten times that of his doomed friend.   If Hemingway’s flawed personality often caused pain to others, he was equally adept at making them laugh.  And read.

The Hemingway Foundation, the keeper of the Oak Park branch of the flame, is just down the street. Check them out.

(More information about the Hemingway Foundation can be found at

John and Kathryn Atwood will be performing Songs of the Two World Wars at the Pleasant Home on Thursday, October 4, as part of “The Big Read” celebration of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

The Musical’s the Thing

April 2, 2010


Sonia had told me about Crescendo Park before.  My fellow piano teacher from the Steckman Studio had actually gotten me a free ticket for a musical called “Chicken Coop” where all the actors dressed up as chickens and acted their way through a loose plot which obviously existed for the sole purpose of stringing together a series of appealing classic pop numbers.

And although the performers — ranging in age from what appeared to be 20-somethings all the way up to 70-somethings – seemed like a group of ordinary people skillfully singing their hearts out in the basement of a Lutheran church, all of the choreography was more or less in sync and I couldn’t hear a single pitch discrepancy between them and the live band which was backing them up.  That’s right: a impressively live band consisting of a pianist, a few guitarists, a sax player, and a drummer.

I saw it.  I wanted to be part of it.  I had sung along to the record of “The Sound of Music” since childhood, once fooling my father into thinking he was hearing the record when I crooned the “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” solo through the house intercom.  As I fell in love with (and committed to memory) musical after musical, my desire to sing my way through a staged play grew.

Alas, my only brush with a high school production was a bit part in Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Mikado.”  Then, a few decades of nothing.  My love for musicals was relegated to my memory and the video player.

Sonia, by now a Crescendo Park regular (and a voice major to boot), faithfully invited me to join Crescendo every time they began a new show.  By then, my husband John and I had launched our music performance business which is has the banal title of “History Singers” but which provides a fascinating historical glimpse into different times and places through popular and folk songs sung in those times and places.  We had a surprising number of library and historical society gigs which always seemed to conflict with the Crescendo park shows.

But after slaving over a young adult non-fiction book for a year and having a developed a severe itch to do something away from my desk, I received another call from Sonia.  Was I available in February/March?  I looked at my calendar.  No conflicts this time!  I gave a whoop!  I was in a musical!

For eight weeks, about 10 of us met in the basement of Church of the Good Shepherd on Chicago’s northwest side, singing from our scores, learning the tunes and harmonies for a diverse group of pop classics.  I was in heaven.  I hadn’t even been in a choir for years and reading music and singing three-part harmony again was incredibly thrilling.

I kept hearing about a certain phenomenon called “tech week” which seemed far off in the distance but which seemed to imply that we were going to actually stage these songs.  I would have been content to get the chairs up on the stage and just perform that way, especially after I became personally acquainted with tech week.  My choreography experience, back in “The Mikado,” had been limited to a few hand and foot movements, nothing more.

Crescendo Park choreography was way more involved.  One song, 15 different movements.  Four heavily choreographed songs.  You do the math.  My brain, which apparently could still read music and sing harmonies nigh-flawlessly (emphasis on the word “nigh”), would simply not absorb choreography.  I would watch. I would imitate. I would forget.

Tech week became a nightmare.  Normally in bed or heavily involved with a book at 10:00 p.m., I was instead on a stage, relentlessly trying to shove the choreography into my unwilling brain.  Once home, I couldn’t sleep for hours.  In less than a week, I was going to be on a stage with lights shining on me.  And oh, did I mention I was going to be in the front for most of the songs, due to the fact that I had solos on three of the aforementioned choreographed numbers?  I wasn’t going to be able to watch what anyone else was doing – I had to learn every cue and every movement flawlessly.

I started popping pills.  Don’t worry – I wasn’t going all Hollywood.  They were vitamin pills, but I was taking no chances.  This wasn’t a gig where you could call in sick.  The show must go on.

Opening night.  This was a dinner theater served by, in the producer’s own words, “slave labor.”  The actors/singers/dancers were the slave-servers.  It was a seven-course meal, brought to the table by — us.   The producer was a former restaurateur who wanted things done in a very particular way.  No previous training required — but it would have come in handy.  While my brothers and sisters had all earned their teen-aged spending money waiting tables, I – who was to be a nurse — was a nurses’ aid during my minimum wage years.  I knew nothing about waiting tables.  Obviously.  I trickled water down the back of one woman, dropped silverware very close to another, stepped all over some coats which were draped across chairs in some very narrow between-table spaces, almost dropped several loads of dishes . . . well, you get the picture and it wasn’t pretty.  I was saved from total disaster by the good nature of the folks we were there to entertain and by my fellow servers, all of who were either Crescendo Park veterans or were generally familiar with the restaurant business.

After two grueling but camaraderie-filled hours, we excused ourselves from the dining area and went to change.  We all changed in one room, men and women.  Somehow I didn’t see that one coming but since I was wearing a cami under my blouse and knew how to pull a skirt over pants, etc., I was able to change Audrey Hepburn-style (remember the cab scene at the end of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”?) without embarrassing myself or anyone else. 

Then, on to the show.  It was a blur of nerves, exhaustion, and desperate “I’ll never come near a stage again as long as I live” thoughts.  On the other hand, it was, surprisingly, a bit of fun.  And very interesting.  What struck me most forcibly was not the glaring lights or the fact that I actually remembered most of the choreography, but what happened backstage.  While on stage, everyone was “out there” giving it their all.  Then, they’d troop backstage where the script was taped to the wall, and became real quiet.  There was nary a sound unless you count the footsteps of the smokers who tip-toed out the back door for regular breaks or the adorable 4th-grade ensemble mascot who quietly choregraphed and mouthed every song she wasn’t actually on stage for.

And then there was the audience.  I guess I forgot that they were going to be there. They obviously imbued most of the rest of the cast with some great energy but those blurry heads (I wasn’t allowed to wear my glasses) drained me of confidence.  But by the second week-end, I was starting to get a little more confidence; and those blurry heads?   They didn’t exactly energize me but at least they had ceased to overpower me.

On the plus side, my husband John was extremely supportive all the way through, taking video after video, and my teenagers, though they would have rather have been boiled in oil than watch their mom choreograph her way through a musical revue, were not too embarrassed by the fact of my being there. They didn’t mind all the frozen pizza meals either. I met some very interesting, fun, and amazingly down-to-earth theater people.  And although it wasn’t huge, we did all get a check for our efforts.

The aforementioned negatives were still outweighing the positives, though, by the end of the last show.  I was pretty sure I’d never be back. But now I’m vacillating.  I think the lights, the music, the fascinating theater front stage/backstage thing, and the choreography got into my blood a bit, more than I thought possible considering all the accompanying hardships.  Although it was only about a month ago now, I can’t remember the nerves and the exhaustion as much as I remember the fun.  I was in a musical.

* * * * *

Three of us from the ensemble started a Facebook fan page for Crescendo Park where you can see the videos John took of some of the musical numbers and the videos I took from backstage of the incredibly talented live band.  Plus dozens and dozens of pictures.

Cinematic Stuff: Film, Television, and Theater Reviews

January 10, 2010

“Finding Neverland”

“That Girl: Season One”

“Image Before My Eyes: A History of Jewish Life in Poland Before the Holocaust”

“The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”

“Pride and Prejudice” (2007)

“Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”

“Because of Winn Dixie”

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”

“The Thames Shakespeare Collection: Macbeth, King Lear, Romeo & Juliet, Twelfth Night”

“Trip to Bountiful” (Village Players’ Theater)

“Stage This!” volumes one, two, and three.   Book review of some short but excellent contemporary plays.–Volume-1-2-and-3-Monologues-Short-Solo-Plays-and-10-minute-Plays-Reviewed-By-Kathryn-Atwood-Of-Bookpleasurescom/Page1.html

A River, A Skyline, and a People

January 9, 2010

My high-schoolers have an unusual interest in the weather reports, especially if those reports include heavy rainfall. That’s because their school is just a half-block away from the Des Plaines River, a 150-mile strip of water that stretches from Kenosha to the Kankakee and meanders all through the near-west suburbs of Chicago. If the river gets too high, my kids get a day off.

Even in good weather, and especially if we get stuck – as we regularly do – in Roosevelt Road’s early morning traffic, we always glance at the river as we drive by. Thick clumps of trees and bushes line its banks and grant a visual respite from bumpers and brake lights. I like to think that the river and its bank looked just like that when it provided life and transportation for the Potawatomi.

They were the first Forest Parkers, the folks that traded in the downtown swamp but made their homes next to the Des Plaines River in an area which we also pass on our daily ride, a place currently occupied by many famous and infamous Chicago dead – the Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park.

The Potawatomi were friendly with the Europeans who moved into the Chicago area: they traded and intermarried with them, and even came to their rescue during the Dearborn Massacre and the Blackhawk Uprising. But the Great White Treaties were apparently made to be broken and the settlers quickly forgot the loyalties of the Potawatomi, kicked them off their own property and sent them packing, many to an area that later became Kansas. Except for a few sad stragglers, by the mid-19th century, the Potawatomi had virtually disappeared from the Chicago area.

It’s a heartbreaking story and I always feel somewhat guilty when I get excited about what comes next: a city rising out of a swamp, like one of those rock gardens that grows to impressive heights when submerged in water. Actually, Chicago was submerged in water, but the rugged early city leaders didn’t let that stand in their way. With a “one, two, three” they lifted the city out of the muck. They reversed the natural flow of the Chicago River. And when the city burnt to the ground in 1871, it was rebuilt it in time to host the impressive Columbian Exposition of 1893. There has never been such a “can-do” city in all of history.

Last Saturday morning, as I was turning east on to the Eisenhower expressway, with my son, Jeremy, heading towards the city, the Forest Park skies were dark and foreboding. But when we passed under the Austin ramp and the Chicago skyline came into view, I got quite a thrill. The clouds behind my favorite buildings were bright with sun and provided a stunning background to one of the world’s more impressive skylines.

After I dropped Jeremy off and headed back to Forest Park, the western skies were still gloomy. And nothing can change the fact that our Chicago predecessors of European descent forced some particularly noble and loyal Native Americans off their own lands. There was a way to build a city without laying a foundation of betrayal and heartbreak. But no one tried to find it. And John and I are going to do our best to make sure that the Potawatomi story is told.

But we’d also like to tell the story of what came next: how sheer determination transformed a swamp into a city. A city with a stunning skyline.