President Bill Clinton and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel recently gathered at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to commemorate the museum’s 20th Anniversary. Clinton was in his second term when the museum opened. Wiesel who had survived Auschwitz is among other things the author of many books, including “Night.” Both men sounded the same theme: Remember.
“You know the truth. You have enshrined it here. You must continue to work to give it to all human kind,” Clinton said, as quoted in a National Public Radio report.
“It is your memory that inherit ours,” Wiesel told the gathering, according to NPR.
I visited the USHMM archives while researching my new book Death In the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. The book tells the story of the East Prussian refugees who were aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff on January 30, 1945. It allows readers into the lives of the survivors – before, during and after the war. To do that properly I needed to weave in the experience those who endured Nazi concentration camps in East Prussia, including Stutthof. The Stutthof extermination camp, and its 150 sub-camps, was located in the Baltic Sea region. Born in Lodz, Poland Ruth Weintraub Kent, was but one survivor of Stutthoff. She was one of six children. Her father died before World War Two started. Only she and two brothers survived.
It took a long time for the survivors of the Nazi concentration camps to speak. It wasn’t until the 1960 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem did the world snap to attention and take note of Nazi atrocities. It’s been 53 years since the Eichmann trial. Each year there are fewer eyewitnesses to this period. According to the Associated Press 834 survivors attended the ceremony earlier this week. The Holocaust Museum chose to mark its 20th anniversary rather than its 25th because there will be far fewer survivors alive in five years. As such it is more important than ever to find and preserve this past.
Remembering is not passive. General Dwight Eisenhower understood that when he visited the Ohrdruf concentration camp. He explained the reason for his visit in an April 15, 1945 letter to General George C. Marshall. Eisenhower ‘s quote is etched in stone in front of the museum:
On a recent tour of the forward areas in First and Third Armies, I stopped momentarily at the salt mines to take a look at the German treasure. There is a lot of it. But the most interesting — although horrible — sight that I encountered during the trip was a visit to a German internment camp near Gotha. The things I saw beggar description. While I was touring the camp I encountered three men who had been inmates and by one ruse or another had made their escape. I interviewed them through an interpreter. The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick. In one room, where they were piled up twenty or thirty naked men, killed by starvation, George Patton would not even enter. He said he would get sick if he did so. I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops the tendency to charge these allegations merely to “propaganda.”
A recent photo essay depicted Syrian refugees holding the “one thing” they carried from home as they fled the violence. Some held a wedding photo, some a key to their house. Some took a stack of documents and some a cooking pan.
When my husband’s grandfather left Poland, because as a Jew it was too dangerous to stay, he took his tallit and his teffilan. Together those two objects were his “one thing.” Not all of the family escaped when the Nazis stormed through. Eighteen years ago my husband and I married under the hand woven woolen prayer shawl. It was our way of saying: “We are here. We live.”
In Death In the Baltic: the WWII Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff the “one thing” was different things for different people. The East Prussians fleeing the Red Army took for sentimental reasons as well as for survival.
For Irene Tschinkur East and Ellen Tschinkur Maybee it was a set of silver spoons hidden in coat pockets. The Soviets deported the Tschinkurs from Latvia as part of the 1939 Non Aggression Pact. The family was told to take only what they could fit into a small suitcase. Their mother Serafima Tschinkur decided to take the spoons, hoping to use them as cash in East Prussia. The spoons remained with the Tschinkur sisters’ father while they, their mother and cousin Evi boarded the Gustloff. Stirring tea or coffee with these spoons is Irene’s way of saying “We are here. We live.”
For Helga Reuter Knickerbocker the “one thing” was a stack of photographs tucked into her father’s woolen trousers that she wore aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff. Her older sister Inge had the identity cards. Helga wanted something from home. Miraculously the photographs survived her near drowning in the Baltic Sea after the Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed.
Horst Woit’s “one thing” was his uncle’s jackknife. When he and his mother fled Elbing, East Prussia, Woit swiped his uncle’s knife. This pure act of impulsive innocence saved him, his mother and a lifeboat filled with people.
Horst Woit no longer has the knife that saved him, but in many ways he holds it still; present as it is in his every waking thought. Sometimes you don’t need to have the object to hold it. Objects have power, even when we no longer posses them. They are a way to say: “We are here. We live.”
The Nazi Party used the Wilhelm Gustloff to win hearts, minds and appeasement before using it as a recreational vessel. Between April 3 and April 4, 1938 days before its maiden voyage, shortly after the Gustloff had finished her first sea trials it Gustloff rescued the Pegaway, a 1,826-ton English cargo ship just 20 miles off Tershcelling, a Dutch island. The Pegaway had sent a distress call around 4 am. After he received the call, the Gustloff’s Captain Karl Lübbe ordered the Gustloff to sail to the Pegaway. By all accounts it was a difficult rescue. Still, the Gustloff managed to pull 19 members of the English crew aboard his ship.
Local and international newspapers showered praise on Lübbe. According to an article in the Australian newspaper the “Sydney Morning Herald” a silver plaque was awarded to the crew of the Wilhelm Gustloff in recognition of their rescue of the crew of the British steamship Pegaway when “it foundered about 25 miles north-west of Letershcelling Light on April 4th during a gale of hurricane force and mountainous seas.” The news article relayed how the Pegaway crew was treated with “the utmost kindness by all onboard and while in Hamburg they were supplied with clothing and pocket money and were helped in other ways.” The Third Reich’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels and the rest of the Nazi propaganda ministry used the story to portray the Third Reich as a humanitarian regime: one more tool in its propaganda arsenal.
The greatest generation went to war, came home, raised families and got on with their lives. At least that’s the narrative we were taught and the narrative reinforced in books, movies and plays too numerous to count. But the truth is the greatest generation suffered from the traumas of war just as did soldiers before and since.
Some of those soldiers are only now speaking about their experiences. One WW2 veteran I interviewed, Sam Polis, enlisted when he was 17. He was assigned to Company A, 232nd Inf., 42nd Division as a machine-gunner. On January 17, 1945, and the German Tiger Tanks surrounded the Alsatian village of Sessenheim. But Polis, and the 42nd “Rainbow” Division, had orders: ”Hold at all costs.” It’s taken years for the Wiltonian to understand the true nature of “all costs”.
“I enlisted because I wanted to be in the war and I thought it [the war] would be too short. I wanted to shoot, but then I found out they shoot back,” Polis said.
On January 17, 1945 Polis and his company had relieved elements of B Company, who had repelled German attack in Sessenheim. The platoon attacked with mortar squads acting as riflemen. For three hours an intense artillery barrage pinned the men to an open field, Polis said. Finally the men made their way to an abandoned house. Polis covered one window; his friend covered the other window.
“It’s black – even the snow,” Polis said. “Suddenly some guys, all white clothes, all white helmets are walking in front of us. They can’t see us. I thought they were MPs and I thought – for a second – what are they doing here?”
The Germans had surrounded Company A. Polis and his unit repelled the initial firefight. But then, after constant pounding from German tanks, their senior surviving NCO, a PFC-acting-sergeant, ordered the men to surrender.
“Our commander took a white flag and the enemy shot on it and it went down,” Polis said. “The commander held the flag again. The enemy said come on out. We never thought about surrendering, but we had no choice. In Sessemheim I thought I would die. The Germans took us out and put us in a line,” Polis said. “They took every other one of us to a barn and shot them.”
Polis cried when he told the story. He’d waited almost 70 years to speak of it.
Of course it’s not only WW2 combat veterans who are dealing with the trauma of a war that spread across Europe, Asia and parts of Africa. It’s not only those who suffered in German concentration camps, Soviet gulags and Japanese POW camps that are summoning up the courage to speak of their trauma. Now, after decades of silence the civilians of countries hostile to the United States and her Allies are mustering up the strength to speak.
Civilians caught in the firebombing of Dresden, or civilians such as those profiled in my forthcoming book Death in the Baltic: The WW2 Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff (Palgrave Macmillan). Of course they bear a different sort of different trauma. Those aboard the ill-fated escape ship came of age in Hitler’s Germany. They have difficulty speaking about the sinking of the Gustloff not only because it was a violent act. They have trouble because they felt shamed into silence – after all they were civilians of an enemy state.
Thus, the story of the Gustloff has been relatively hidden for more than six decades.
In describing the dead after the Battle of Gettysburg, a newspaper in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania had this to say: “Every name is a lightning stroke to some heart, and breaks like thunder over some house and falls a long black shadow upon some hearthstone.” It’s a fitting quote, which resonated with me while writing Death in the Baltic. For the story of the Gustloff, with all its human drama, not only resurrects history but, raises provocative questions about loss, survival and how those immediately impacted continue on year after year, decade after decade.
When the Costa Concordia capsized more than a year ago the jokes came quickly. But there was, and is, nothing particularly funny about the fact that 32 people perished just meters from shore. There is nothing particularly funny about the fact that more than 60 people were injured. Now new details about the night of January 13, 2012 have emerged thanks to a new prosecutor’s report. Details of which have been widely reported in the news media here and abroad.
Initially the tragedy of the Concordia drew me because when it occurred I was in the middle of writing and researching my own book about another tragedy at sea: the torpedo attack and subsequent sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff on January 30, 1945.
So yesterday I read of the harrowing ordeal many of the 4,000 passengers aboard the Costa Concordia faced, and the grim details of how some of the 32 victims perished. There was Dayana Arlotti, a 5-year-old girl and her father William. They couldn’t find space on a lifeboat. According to the prosecutor’s report the two struggled the other side of the listing ship. Instead they fell into the watery void and drowned. Reading Dayana’s story reminded me of Helga Reuter Knickerbocker’s story. After the third torpedo hit the Gustloff, Helga and her sister Inge tried to find space on a lifeboat. Instead they found themselves in the icy Baltic Sea. Helga survived. Inge did not. Like the Gustloff, the Concordia didn’t have enough lifeboats.
There is the story of the bartender Erika Molina. According to the reports Molina did secure a seat on a lifeboat, but when the lifeboat launched she was sucked underwater and drowned. When I interviewed survivors of the Wilhelm Gustloff I heard story after story of lifeboats capsizing sending people into the swirling sea, of people being pushed out of lifeboats. It is difficult to capture in words what survivors of these, or any catastrophe, encounter.
The Concordia’s captain, Francesco Schettino will likely stand trial for manslaughter and abandoning ship – as he should. The Gustloff’s four captains all survived and none stood trial. There was a board of inquiry, but that’s all. Unlike the Concordia tragedy, the Gustloff was not discussed publicly, nor was it widely reported at the time. In its place came silence.
I read that the citizens of Giglio, the Italian island near where the Concordia sank want the wreck taken away. It’s a painful reminder of last year’s incident. Of course nothing will be able to drag away the emotional scars. It’s been nearly 70 years since the Wilhelm Gustloff sank and for the survivors whose stories are recounted in some the memories are still fresh.
“Until further notice, the NHHC Archives are closed to researchers, and are limited in responding to official reference requests…”
Phew! Truly, what a difference a year makes.
Last winter, while I was heavy into the research for my forthcoming book Death in the Baltic: The WWII Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff I spent quite a bit of time in Washington, DC and College Park Maryland. Here in the United States I needed to delve into the treasure troves otherwise known as the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National Archives and Records Administration. I also dug into archives in Germany, (for that I am indebted to Marco Hedler) and the Submarine Force Library and Museum in Groton, Connecticut.
My book relates this hitherto untold story through the eyes of several survivors. However, it wouldn’t be what it is without the papers, audiotapes and photos I was able to examine in the archives. Of course the closure of the archives doesn’t compare with the ways in which sequestration might hurt the lives and financial situation for so many Americans. However, it’s unfortunate that the sequestration will impact researchers and scholars because the hard work that goes into preserving history – one story at a time – will go on hold and with it any number of papers, articles, books and documentaries.
For a researcher, archives and libraries are like Aladdin’s’ Cave – only the treasures inside aren’t glittering lamps and scintillating jewels. Rather the treasures housed in archives are the documents, photographs, transcripts and more.
It’s been 10 years since the publication of my first book, “Shot From the Sky: American POWs in Switzerland” (US Naval Institute Press). At the time few knew of their story. Now, 10 years later, these airmen will receive the POW medal.
From 1943 through 1945, 1,516 American airmen were imprisoned in Switzerland in internment camps after being shot down or forced down by Swiss fighters or antiaircraft batteries. Some were captured after intentionally landing. The Swiss claimed they honored international law in their arrest of POWs, but they applied the law in a grossly unfair manner to the benefit of the Nazis. No German airmen were interned, and Nazi aircraft were allowed to land safely at Swiss airfields, refuel, and depart.
Conditions in most of the internment sites were generally adequate for Americans who obeyed their captors’ orders – but it was a far different story for those who did their patriotic duty and attempted to escape. American servicemen who ventured past a camp’s posted limits, or tried to get across the border into occupied France, risked being shot by Swiss guards and sent to penitentiary camps commanded by Nazi sympathizers. The treatment there was as harsh – in some cases harsher – than at POW camps across the border in Germany.
Wauwilermoos, in Lucerne, Switzerland, 50 miles from Germany, was violent and rampant with disease. Double rows of barbed wire and guard towers surrounded the prison compound; barracks built to hold a maximum of 20 men usually held 90.
American airmen who were caught trying escape from Switzerland were imprisoned here for as long as seven months – a clear violation of international law, which limited such sentences to 30 days. It even violated the Swiss military code, which mandated maximum sentences of 20 days.
These men were truly prisoners of war, but their story remained in darkness for nearly 60 years. These men, who answered without hesitation or reservation when their country called, found themselves maligned when they returned home. They were called cowards and accused of dodging combat by going to Switzerland.
During the war, some American military leaders actually encouraged the idea that these airmen landed in pristine condition with more than enough fuel to carry them home, or that crews had stowed bags packed with vacation wear.
These were ludicrous accusations. An investigation launched during the war concluded that the Flying Fortresses and Liberators that landed in Switzerland did so because of damage or loss of fuel too severe to enable them to make it back to England. The number of men who tried to escape and rejoin their units – nearly 70 percent – clearly shows the American airmen’s loyalty to their country.
Yet the story remained in the margins.
For decades American veterans’ groups largely ignored the former internees, viewing them as little better than deserters. The US government itself did not officially acknowledge the existence of the camp at Wauwilermoos until 1996. For too long the majority of these men were denied POW status.
I wrote this book, the first book to tell the story of these airmen, in 2003.
Indeed the Congress wouldn’t have acted had it not been for the determination of Maj. Dwight Mears. Mears is the grandson of one of the internees, a graduate of West Point and he received his dissertation on the subject. He pursued the issue and worked diligently to correct policy regarding the medal. Before the medal was awarded only to those held by hostile captors – those in armed conflict with the United States. After researching and working with many people, including the USAF leadership, Mears was able to get an amendment to that policy through congress.
These airmen will now receive the honor and respect accorded to other Americans who have been prisoners of war. They have also gained something else: their rightful place in history.
Emma, my great-grandmother, was an Orthodox Jewish woman who, aside from raising her children, was a member of her synagogue’s burial society.
In that role she made shrouds for the dead. The hand-sewn white linen shrouds had no knots, no hems and no pockets. According to Jewish tradition, everyone, regardless of class or socio-economic standing, is buried in a white shroud. Emma also performed tahara, the washing and the purifying of a dead body. Those performing tahara provide comfort for the soul and care for the body. Those who partake in this most sacred ritual speak of it being at once task-oriented and spiritual, something mystic comes forth from the routine.
My rabbi tells us, as does much literature on the subject, that this is considered one of the greatest mitzvoth, or good deed, a person can perform. It is considered that because the person being served cannot say :“Thank You.”
Every culture, every religion has funerary rites and customs. The military too has its rites and customs. I thought about this while reading “And Then I Cried: Stories of a Mortuary NCO” by first-time author Justin Jordan. It is a deeply emotional portrayal of Jordan’s service as an Air Force Mortuary Non Commissioned Officer. His work, like that of my great-great grandmother, is at once task-oriented and spiritual. There are the check list of things to do to prepare a body for burial and there are the things one feels and thinks, the compassion one shows for the dead and their bereaved.
Jordan’s slim volume reveals the inner workings of this world, a world at once rigid, and at once heartbreaking.
“I invite you now to take a walk with me and carry my pain, even if for just a little while,” Jordan writes. Thus readers are invited to walk beside Jordan while he deals with families of the deceased and observes the embalming process.
Jordan finished Basic Military Training in 1993. He was assigned to the Morale Welfare Recreation and Services career field. Jordan learns that his duties will include Mortuary Affairs. He is startled but determined to perform his duties with the utmost reverence and humanity.
Until 2009 there was ban on photographs of flag draped coffins. That same year HBO aired the film “Taking Chance” about the real life experiences of Lt. Col. Michael Strobl, a volunteer military escort officer as he accompanies the body of 19-year-old Marine Chance Phelps back to his hometown of Dubois, Wyoming. There is simply a dearth of material that allows the public to see, hear and understand how the military cares for its dead. While Jordan doesn’t gloss over facts, or use euphemistic terms, there is nothing gratuitous about his descriptions. Instead the book takes readers inside a world few see. For that I am grateful for Jordan’s intensely personal book.
This is a tough read. Yet, there is comfort between the pages. The comfort comes from knowing that no matter how they might fall – car accident, heart attack, suicide or war – no airwoman or airman will be alone. Someone like Jordan will be there to watch over and ensure dignity and respect.
The men and women that Mortuary NCOs serve cannot say “Thank You.” But, we the public can say “Thank You” to men and women like Justin Jordan.
I used to think I am well read. Then I took the Christian Science Monitor’s quiz “Are You as Well Read as a 10th Grader?”
The quiz is composed of 37 questions about books and poems. You can answer 1. I read that 2. I read part of that. 3. I have heard of that. 4. I have never heard of that.
I completed the quiz and the following message popped on my screen:
“You’re pretty well read.” (Not well read, but pretty well read.) “You like to throw words like Bildungsroman and anagnorisis around. Please stop.” I can honestly say that apart from a High School essay I am sure I’ve never once used one of those words in a sentence, written or spoken.
But let’s get back to that pretty little qualifier.
At first I felt a little deflated with my results. I am always reading. I read for my job and I read for pleasure. I am usually reading 2 or 3 books at a time. I even listen to two different books at a time. Right now I’ve a John Sanford novel to listen to while exercising and a Ken Follet novel for my commute to Quinnipiac University. I have a book on my desk to review for Warfare Magazine and I just finished another book review for Military Writers Society of America.
I was and remain an eclectic reader. You’ll catch me reading both a Vince Flynn thriller and Martha Gellhorn’s books. I like Alan Furst and Jane Austen. I like nonfiction history and I like graphic novels. But does this mean I’m well read or that I read a lot and is there a difference?
I suppose to be well read, according to the quiz, one must read all the classics and the Bible and whatever 10th graders are currently reading. When I was in 10th grade we read a lot of short stories including Joseph Conrad’s “The Open Boat”, DH Lawrence’s “The Rocking Horse Winner” and Prosper Merimee’s “Mateo Falcone.” We read novels such as “The Heart of Darkenss,” “The Grapes of Wrath” and plays such as “Macbeth.” We didn’t read Michael Shaara’s “Killer Angels” or “Speak”, which it seems some 10th graders do now. (I did read the former but not the latter). I’ve got some new ‘to read’ books.
Reading is subjective. I love Ernest Hemingway, “A Farewell to Arms” is still one of my favorite books (Although I think his third wife Martha Gellhorn was a superior writer.) For me “Moby Dick” is a great story, by an author ahead of his time and I love the characters of Ishmael, John Wells, Gabriel Allon and Mitch Rapp. I adore Scout from “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Polly Shine from “The Healing” and Jo from “Little Women.” All of these characters speak to me.
So to be well read or to read well? I think the latter is more important – read a lot and read often. Just read it.
During the winter holiday we took a family trip, a historical jaunt really, to some of the places that gave rise to the United States we know today.
Fun fact: We crossed through 10 states in 8 days. Of course in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic that’s not hard given that one of the states – Delaware is 96 miles long and between 9 and 35 miles wide.
Because we left at night, we didn’t want to drive straight to Williamsburg, Virginia. So we stopped at Newark, Delaware. To get there we passed Newark International Airport in New Jersey. As we passed the airport the line of airplanes waiting to land stretched for what seemed miles. Their lights evenly spaced, it reminded us of space ships being pulled in to the mother ship.
The next morning we awoke, grabbed breakfast at Dunkin’ Donuts and took a planned hour-and-a-half detour on our way to Williamsburg. We wanted to a) stop for lunch at Suicide Bridge Restaurant in Hurlock, Maryland and b) cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. The crab cakes were sublime. The view from the bridge would definitely have been better during the day. But still the lights twinkled and glistened over the waters.
Fun fact: Opened in 1964, the tunnel is known as one of the seven engineering marvels of the modern world. It’s 23 miles from end to end; this includes the causeway and approach roads. The bridge-tunnel itself is 17.6 miles long.
During our three days in the Williamsburg area we spent time at the Virginia Air & Space Center, which has hands on activities that adults will find just as fun as kids. (Case in point: we spent just as much time folding paper airplanes and trying to get them to hit their targets as our kids did.)
Virginia Air & Space Museum
Colonial Williamsburg. In spite of the 8th grade field trip atmosphere, there is a lot to learn and a visit definitely prompts discussion. Case in point: the interpreter in the House of Burgesses asked my son if he would volunteer to be tried as a horse thief. He good-naturedly agreed. His younger sister was the character witness. Alas, it didn’t end well for him. (Time travelers’ note to 18th century defendants – don’t annoy your younger sister before your trial.)
The lesson however was clear. In the early years of the colonies justice was as swift and as it was harsh. Pillories and stocks, shackles and hangings were the norm. The interpreter standing near the pillories and stocks explained that during these pre-Revolutionary years, children as young as 12 in England could be taken from their parents and sent as indentured convicts to the penal colony of Georgia for stealing a loaf of bread.
We also went to hear and learn about the House of Burgesses, the stately brick building where Patrick Henry said “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
While sitting in the upstairs conference room I couldn’t help but think that if our present day Congress had to operate under the same conditions as their 18th Century counterparts perhaps Washington would accomplish more and stop the dysfunction. In other words, we’d be better off locking today’s politicians in a room with no heat and one chamber pot.
Walking about the grounds one could picture the militia marching up and down in front of the Governors Palace. As Kevin Phillips new book 1775: A Good Year for Revolution explains the year before the Declaration of Independence royal governors up and down the east coast scurried back across the pond and loyalists started fleeing the colonies.
But as freedom came for some, others looked on. While history remains somewhat sanitized here at Colonial Williamsburg steps have been taken to show slavery. When I visited as a child there was no mention of this part of our nation’s past.
My hope is that enough questions raised by visiting families to further explore and read accounts. The same can be said for another stop on our trip: Historic Jamestown.
We arrived at Jamestown at days end, the grasses near the river seemed afire from the sun’s long rays. The peace of the moment belied the savagery of the place. As the t-shirts in the gift shop proclaimed: Jamestown: where survival wasn’t a game. That was true for the English, true for the Indians and true for the African Americans. The film offers glimpses of life in 1607, and the relatively new visitors center does address the way in which the lives of three peoples intersected. Though the Powhatan Indians left no written record of their life there archaeologists have made many important discoveries. Still, the story told remains told largely from the English perspective and more needs to be done to tell the story of the Powhatans and the African Americans.
Archeological work continues at Historic Jamestown.
After Virginia we headed to Asheville, North Carolina. There we toured the Biltmore Estate, George and Edith Vanderbilt’s 250-room, or 4 acre, ‘family home.’ Paintings by John Singer Sargent and Pierre August Renoir hang on the walls of this Gilded Age estate. Frederick Olmstead supervised the landscaping of the grounds. Upon his death Vanderbilt a large portion of the estate went to the US government and formed the core of the Pisgah National Forest. Today the Biltmore Corporation cares for for 5,000 acres of forests and woodlands.
The 250-room Biltmore House, built during the Gilded Age, was modeled after chateaux of the Loire Valley in France.
Fun fact: 67 Christmas trees adorn Biltmore House. Each room has a different color scheme, peach and powder blue in one; green, gold and red in another. Christmas is nearly a year round enterprise at Biltmore, the docent explained. Decorations start going up in October and come down in February.
We left Asheville under pewter skies and snow and made our way to Charlottesville, Virginia, crossing through Eastern Tennessee on the way. Tennessee contributed more soldiers than any other state to both the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War. The six-hour drive became an eight-hour drive because of the weather. We arrived at Monticello in time for the last tour. By chance we would have a private tour.
We boarded the shuttle bus and headed up the drive. Ice glistened off the tree branches. The lamps along the brick walk flickered. Inside it was just the four of us with our guide. Inside the lamps cast a soft light. Jefferson’s presence was felt in every nook – from the front hall, which was a small natural history museum to the skylights above to the books. Oh the books! So many books!
We left marveling at Jefferson’s innovations and feeling how Monticello was a house of contradictions. Its owner fought for freedom and religious tolerance with his words; indeed Commodore Uriah P. Levy, the US Navy’s first Jewish flag officer purchased Monticello in 1834 because of Jefferson’s stance on religion. However, Thomas Jefferson’s actions kept more than 300 people in bondage. Henry Wiencek’s new book Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves gives this a fresh look.
Our last stop before heading home to Connecticut was Gettysburg, PA. Standing atop Seminary Ridge as day turned to dusk we felt the vastness of the Civil War. In a way it was coming full circle. From Colonial Williamsburg, one of the starting points of the American Revolution, to the spot where men fought to save the Union and push for the freedoms of those still in bondage.
Day turns to dusk atop Seminary Ridge, Gettysburg.