Tag Archives: World War II

This Day in History 6/20: Kazimierz Piechowski escapes Auschwitz through the front door

On June 20, 1942, a Steyr 220 sedan rolled out of the gates of Auschwitz, the notorious extermination camp in Poland.

In the sedan were four men, apparently members of the SS-Totenkopfverbande, or “Deaths Head” units, SS soldiers charged with administering the camps.

What seemed to be a routine jaunt by four Nazis was in fact an incredible escape from the infamous killing factory–an escape right in front of the camp itself.

Kazimierz Piechowski was a captured Polish resistance fighter who had bounced around different Gestapo camps doing forced labor.  In fact, he was merely a teen Boy Scout–apparently the Polish Boy Scouts were considered a resistance movement by the Germans, thus targeted by the SS and the Gestapo.  He arrived at Auschwitz as a political prisoner (not marked for extermination) in June of 1940, where he was assigned to carry corpses to the crematoria.  

On June 20, 1942, Piechowski led three other prisoners in an escape attempt: Stanisław Gustaw Jaster, a Polish army officer, Józef Lempart, a priest from Wadowice (which was the hometown of Pope John Paul II, so they may have known each other), and  Eugeniusz Bendera, a Ukrainian mechanic in charge of vehicles on the camp lot.

They first go through the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei gate (“Work will set you free“) disguised as a haulage detail pulling a cart.  Then Piechowski, Jaster and Lempart went to a warehouse where they stashed uniforms, machine guns and grenades, while Bendera went to the motorpool to fetch appropriate transportation.  When Bendera showed up with the car, he casually went into the warehouse and put on his SS “uniform.”  The four then go to the car, with Bendera driving.  Piechowski was in the front passenger seat, as he had the best working knowledge of German.  As they approached the gate, the doors wouldn’t open.  Nervously, Piechowski opened the door enough so his SS rank insignia was showing, and barked orders in German to open the gate.

The gate opened, and the four drove off, never to return to Auschwitz.

The Nazis subsequently hauled Piechowski’s parents to Auschwitz in reprisal, where they died.  They even convened a special investigation in Berlin to see how such a brazen escape was possible.  It is believed that after the Piechowski escape, inmate numbers were tattooed on arms to better identify runaways.

Piechowski himself continued in the Polish resistance, and became an engineer after the war.  He even served 7 years in a Communist labor camp for his alleged anti-Communist role in the resistance–which was more than double the time he spent imprisoned by the Nazis.  After the Cold War, he quietly retired and refused all honors bestowed on him.

Bendera, according to Piechowski, was the real mastermind, as he conceptualized the plan and the logistics.  He would live in Poland until his death in 1970.  Lempart, the priest, would leave the priesthood, marry and raise a family before getting hit by a bus in Wadowice in 1971.  Jaster’s end remains a mystery: a book claims that he collaborated with the Nazis and was executed by the resistance in 1943.  It has since been refuted as lacking evidence, and is believed Jaster died in Gestapo activity sometime in the fall of 1943–the circumstances are still unclear.

Attached is the 2006 Polish documentary Uciekinier (“Man on the Run”), an award-winning film about the escape.

 

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Website Review: Dr. Seuss Went to War

During World War II, everyone played a part.

Everyone…including Dr. Seuss.

Before Theodore Giesel gained worldwide prominence as a childrens’ book author, he was the chief editorial cartoonist for the New York magazine PMBetween 1941 and 1943, Geisel drew over 400 cartoons for the magazine, and also for other publications.

It is a rare moment when an iconic figure shows his political colors–and a unique website allows us access to this part of his career.

The Dr. Seuss collection at the Mandeville Special Collections Library at the University of California, San Diego houses all the original drawings and cartoons by the famous author.  About 200 of these cartoons were reproduced in the 1999 book Dr. Seuss Goes to War. 

UCSD has digitized its entire collection and provided it for general use at its website Dr. Seuss Went to War.  All his wartime cartoons for PM have been categorized by year, battle, geographic area and personality covered by Seuss.

It provides an excellent resource for teachers making connections between the complexities of war and a beloved childrens’ author.  Seuss was always political, and these cartoons show the political mind that would later create such controversial works as The Lorax and The Butter Battle Book.

As exemplars of political cartoons, this database is second to none.  The obviously excellent artwork provides hours of analysis, critical thinking and classroom discussion.  Because they were made as events occurred, the Seuss cartoons have an immediacy that is often overlooked by students today.

Finally, as a historical artifact, the Seuss cartoons allow students to see the war as readers at home saw it–through the eyes and pens of the writers and artists of the press.

Enjoy these cartoons and please let us know how you used them.

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A Lesson on WWII Primary Sources; or, how eBay Finds some Educational Value

New websites are like new toys.

We can’t seem to find enough ways to play with them until they either break or get discarded for the next big thing.

In the early 2000s, eBay was my new toy—and a purchase from those early days found an unusual role in my classroom.

One day, while I had some down time at my office, I puttered around eBay looking for whatever crap struck my fancy.  In those days, it was THE place to find hard-to-find knickknacks, doodads, and whatnot—a veritable treasure chest.

I didn’t find treasure, but I did find a map.

For some odd reason, I needed an old map to frame for my den (even though I lacked a den, a yacht, and Sperry Top-sider footwear).  Though there were plenty of old maps of Maine, Bermuda, Aruba and other preppy hangouts, but I was drawn to a 1940s WPA map of New York City given to servicemen during World War II.

Never mind that it was folded, wrinkly, yellowed and with a funny double-print font that’s hard to read; I needed it for $20.

Let’s say I really didn’t need it.  This relic of wartime Gotham sat in my desk for a decade.

A few months ago, one of my fifth grade classes was wrapping up their unit on US History.  World War II seemed as good a finish as any.  A half-decade of Call of Duty games certainly prepared them with enough content knowledge to teach a military history class at West Point.

To end the unit, I decided to whip out this old relic of a map.  It couldn’t be mounted on a wall, since it was double-sided.  Nonetheless, I made copies of it and gave it to the class.  They examined the map, automatically finding the places they recognize (it’s easy since all the sports stadiums use a ballpark icon).

To really analyze the map, I split the class into groups.  One group made a top-10 list of places a soldier would visit on leave.  Another planned out a 24-hour day for a soldier, detailing where he would visit and for how long.  Still another group came up with places that weren’t on the map.

Some of the responses were downright hilarious.

The top-10 list included places like the George Washington Bridge and the YMCA.  One group gave a soldier five minutes to get from the Statue of Liberty to Harlem.  The  list of places not listed on the map ranged from pizza places to bars to…strip clubs and “love motels” (which we decided to lump into the generic term of “adult establishments.”)

The results, though, were some pretty damn good essays.  They covered about not only about what soldiers did on their free time in New York, but also prevailing attitudes about how soldiers were supposed to behave i.e., the lack of “adult establishments.”

All from an impulse buy on eBay so many years ago.

Here is the link to WWII Lesson Plan.  It includes worksheets and graphic organizers.  Try it out in your own classroom.

This is the  Essay Planning Page for the culminating project.

Here’s also a PDF of the WPA New York City Map for Servicemen that goes with it.

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Videos for the Classroom: Interview about “Slavery by Another Name”

A few nights ago, PBS showed a documentary that chilled me to the bone.

Slavery by Another Name is a documentary based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon.  It details an often-overlooked chapter in African American history: the  “convict lease” system that placed thousands of Southern Blacks in a state of virtual slavery after the Civil War.

When the Reconstruction occupation forces left the South in 1877, Southern whites retook state governments and forced Blacks into a secondary status.  Part of this process was a series of laws that entrapped Black men under seemingly innocent conditions, such as looking at a white woman, walking on a railroad, etc.

Once in custody, these men faced exhorbitant fines and were forced to pay for the cost of their arrest.  Unable to pay such “debts”, these prisoners are leased out to plantations, mines, brickyards, railroads, quarries, steel mills and road building contractors.  State governments made millions in revenue leasing prison inmates to private companies as a source of cheap labor.

These men endured brutal conditions and backbreaking labor in a state of bondage thanks to a loophole in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which does not bar slavery in the case of punishment for a crime. 

It was a system that persisted until World War II.

The video is a conversation that takes place at the National Museum of American History between Blackmon and Bernard and Shirley Kinsey about the book.  For those unfamiliar with the period, the conversation is a real eye-opener to Blackmon’s award-winning research.

Also, read his book and watch the documentary.  You’ll be just as shocked as I was.

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Video for the Classroom: “Joe Louis was a Fighting Man”

It’s almost criminal that over a week has passed in Black History Month, and the Neighborhood has no posts about important African Americans.

Today’s post is a more fun aspect of history, but important nonetheless.  It can be argued that more musical tributes were written about Joe Louis than any other athlete in American history–a Black athlete accepted by both whites and Blacks.

The longest-running heavyweight boxing champion in history, from 1937 to 1949, Joe Louis was among the greatest and most influential athletes of the 20th century.  A hero to African Americans beaten down by the Depression, discrimination and Klan violence, Louis would also become the first Black athlete widely accepted by whites as well.

The culminating moment of Louis’ career was the second fight between Louis and Max Schmeling on June 22, 1938.  Schmeling, a symbol of Nazi Germany, was immediately cast as the villain (despite his own antipathy towards Hitler).  Louis, incredibly, became an American hero overnight. 

His defeat of Schmeling in two minutes and four seconds sent Black neighborhoods across America into wild celebrations, and create something of a mythic hero in Joe Louis.  It would be a heroism belied by the still-rampant discrimination in American life through World War II.

Today’s video is a montage of Joe’s greatest hits.  Yet it’s the audio that’s most important.  Listen to the great blues ballad “Joe Louis was a Fighting Man” and you can get a glimpse of how much Joe Louis meant to people.

It’s also a pretty good tune.  Enjoy.

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A Dear John Letter to my Textbooks

Dear NYC Social Studies Core Curriculum Textbooks published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,

This is a difficult letter for me to write…and an even more difficult letter for you to read, so I hope that you are sitting down.

Remember when we first met? I trembled in excitement upon hearing of a textbook option for New York City’s social studies curriculum. Once I had you (or the fourth grade version of you at the time), it was as if a great weight was lifted from me—finally, a concrete guide to instruction.

I was smitten just by looking at your spine…the glow off your glossy cover…the sharp color photos that littered almost every page.

Those first few months were incredible, weren’t they? Every day was something new, something exciting. We were so wild, so adventurous…we could take on the world. To be honest, we were into some really kinky shit, but that was all in the fun.

Each year, another book would await me, and my love affair renewed. The roller-coaster ride we shared made the mundane phone order to the central office in Tweed so—dare I say—exhilarating. The maps, the optional activities, the worksheets and games: at last, I thought, I found the one.

Yet, something changed.

At first, I thought it was just me. After a while, we settled into our routine. Occasionally, you provide a surprise to spice things up—a game on the Internet, or a music selection. That, however, was the exception to the rule. To be fair, that routine suited me fine…for a while.

Then, maybe it was my weakness…but I started to feel restless. The chapters and units weren’t doing it for me anymore. I felt trapped.

It was then that I met someone else…more like some other people, plural.

There were some websites on the Internet. I was leery, at first. But then, they lured me with their siren song of primary source documents, streaming video and interactive games. Once I saw the ever-changing and ever-expanding volumes of media, lesson plans, worksheets and graphic organizers, that old excitement, that feeling of adventure exploded over me again.

I had mentioned that I was attached, that I couldn’t turn my back on my beloved. They, in turn, mentioned some shocking things about you: that you don’t fact-check your information that well, that there are numerous mistakes in historical maps, that terminology and vocabulary are often misstated.

Worst of all, they said that by watering down the content for the sake of “readability”, you were holding me back—and even worse, holding my students hostage to shoddy literature.

I wouldn’t believe it. They were just jealous, after all, I thought. How could they appreciate the passion, the connection we have…besides, if there were flaws, you would have told me, right?

Right?

Well, I did some digging myself. On page 161 of the grade 3 book, this is what you say about the Roman Empire:

“The Roman Empire lasted about 500 years, but then broke apart. It had grown too large for its rulers to control. However, ancient Rome still affects the world with its ideas about government, architecture, and more.”

Fair enough, it is only for 3rd graders, but sometimes you water down way too much. Look at page 163:

“In the mid-1900s, World War II broke out. Many countries fought in this war, including Italy. Italy was on the side that lost.”

Umm, that’s it? No mention of the nightmare of a 21-year fascist dictatorship that preceded it? No mention of the other countries that bear more responsibility for losing—the ones that had more blood on their hands. Those kids can get that…why do you treat them like morons?

If that’s not bad enough, I found outright lies—lies that you should’ve told me about. Why did you keep it a secret that the leaders of the New Netherland colony were incorrectly called “governors” instead of the correct “directors-general”?

Why does a map of North America in the 18th century use flags from another century? I see an 1801 British flag, a 1793 French flag, and a 1981 Spanish flag.

I’m not even going into the problems in the 5th grade book.

Why? Why did you hold me back so many years? Why the lies? The deceit? The lack of clarity and depth of content?

I’m sorry, but our relationship has really run its course. It’s over.

Please, no tears…it’s not entirely your fault. I was too stupid to realize how badly written you were. I didn’t see your limited vision and lack of depth.

Basically, we’ve really grown apart these past few years. I expanded my base of knowledge and resources through the internet, seminars, grants and lectures.

You just can’t grow past your binding.

You were suffocating me, and screwing my students in the process. There’s nowhere else for this to go.

Believe me, it’s better for both of us.

Goodbye, and good luck. Perhaps we’ll see each other again… that odd day that I need to waste a period with busywork in June.

Just don’t wait up for my call. Sorry, babe.

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This Day in History 6/6: The Normandy Landing

I may have posted on D-Day in the past…I’m not quite sure.  It doesn’t really matter, because the event is still important.

On June 6, 1944, the Allied forces of Great Britain, Canada, free France and the United States began one of the biggest amphibious assaults in American history. In invading the Normandy coast of France, the Allies would begin the first real strike into the heart of German-occupied Western Europe.

The invasion was not flawless. Many of the airborne troops missed their drop points as they parachuted behind enemy lines. German defenses, especially in the American zone, were woefully underestimated. Furthermore, the Allies would be pinned to the peninsula until mid-July, when Cherbourg was secured and a clear path made through to Paris.

Nevertheless, the Normandy invasion was a turning point in world history. For the first time since Napoleon, a hegemonic power invaded another not to conquer, but to liberate. It forced Germany into a two-front war it could not sustain. Finally, it gave the Allies some serious light at the end of a dark, blood-soaked tunnel.

I’ve probably posted it before, but here is the landing scene from Saving Private Ryan. Though not entirely accurate, it gives as sense of the horror and gravity of that fateful June morning.

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