April 12, 2015

Book Recommendation: Women in World War II

Kathryn Atwood’s book Women Heroes of World War II is a story of the strength of women in even the most terrifying circumstances. The book’s subtitle explains the content: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue. Women from seven European countries and the United States are included.

In short readable chapters, filled with tension, Atwood tells the tales of women who hid Jews, engaged in espionage, went into ghettos and tuberculosis asylums to rescue children, and spread forbidden propaganda. The women also worked in the Resistance throughout Europe, were recruited into Britain’s SOE and the United States’ OSS (precursor of the CIA), sent coded radio messages, rescued airmen, and provided false identification papers. They entertained, and reported, comforted and cured. They organized and provided leadership. Some were later acknowledged and rewarded. Some were killed for their efforts, but a surprising number of those in the book lived to what we call a “ripe, old age.”

It made me wonder if the adrenalin that must have flowed through their bodies as they were almost captured and risked their lives might be a secret elixir of life. But, then perhaps it is simply a matter of perspective. There are only 26 stories in this book, but there must be many more. Perhaps only those who lived long lives could finally put their dangerous and gruesome memories behind them and tell their stories.

February 27, 2015

Keeping Things in Perspective

We are remodeling our kitchen and family room—and have been for two months now. It was a gut-and-start-over process. Our living and dining rooms are filled with boxes and furniture, all under plastic, and we have been relegated to the upstairs. The guest bedroom is now a pantry with a microwave. The guest bath is now a kitchen, and the bedroom contains our dining area. It is inconvenient and crowded but I can’t help believing we are fortunate, and not just because we have the means to do this.

Our “kitchen” sink is hardly large enough for one plate, but we have hot water and soap. I picture the women in Vietnam, squatting on their haunches outside their homes, washing dishes in cold water from an outdoor faucet. And I believe I am blessed!

Our refrigerator holds only a tiny tray of ice cubes and not much else, but there is room for the white
wine bottle. I picture the women of Africa who must walk miles each day to find water, then cook over an open fire, waving their fans to keep away the bugs. And I believe I am blessed!

Our “dining” table is in our bedroom, not really big enough for both of us to read the morning paper. I picture the women who crowd their entire families into one room where they all sleep together. And I know I am blessed!

With a tiny refrigerator (and the tiny food prep area in this picture) we must grocery shop almost
every day and I give thanks for the blessing of being able to refrigerate food at all. Shopping so often seems a burden; I wonder why it’s such a pleasure when we are in Italy. The hardest part has been making an effort to eat our usual diet of healthy food. It is no wonder some women must feed their children substandard diets. Most of all, I have missed fresh vegetables. They just don’t taste the same coming out of a microwave or as a side dish in a restaurant. Blessings on the neighbor who invited us over the other day for squash and asparagus!

The plants from downstairs had to be moved. The cactus moved to the master bath, but it was not happy as you can see from the yellow leaves. It did bloom, however--three whole blossoms. Perhaps it was trying to keep up with the orchid. Or perhaps just giving us another blessing!

January 27, 2015

Women's Share is Growing: Is it Enough?

According to a report just issued by the United Nation’s International Labour Organization (ILO), women’s representation in leadership of the workforce is growing. The number of businesses owned or managed by women is increasing, with women heading 30% of businesses in the world. 

Source: dianabuja's blog
Women, however, are most often found at the helm of small businesses, many of them micro ventures; and the larger the business the less likely a woman will head it. Only 5% of the world’s largest corporations are run by women.

On the corporate board level, all-male boards are decreasing. In Norway, over 13% of the companies have women as company chairpersons. And next is Turkey.

Biggest Surprise? The highest percentage of women managers is in Jamaica.

No Surprise: The lowest percentage of women managers is in Yemen.

Our Ranking: The United States is 15th

Deborah France-Massin, director of the ILO’s Bureau for Employers’ Activities, says that the inclusion of women is the “biggest engine of global growth and competitiveness.” However, she warns, at our present rate, “it could take 100 to 200 years to achieve parity at the top.”

December 1, 2014

The Girls of Atomic City

   When I was in college my friend Jim invited me to his home and introduced me to his aunt. Over a glass of scotch, “because it’s five o’clock somewhere,” she regaled us with her experiences as an engineer on the railroad during World War II, when women filled jobs previously held by men in order to help the war effort. I had never heard this description of the war—both of my parents served in the military. I was gratified to hear that women’s prospects had, at one time, been more exciting than mine were at that point. She concluded with a glib, “Of course, when the men came home we gave them back their jobs.”

     This was in the days before the women’s movement had taken hold, but my sensitivities to my second-class status were already on the alert.

     “THEIR jobs!” I screamed silently inside my head. “Their jobs! Why weren’t they YOUR jobs?”

     Being a proper Southerner I did not utter my challenge out loud, but that moment engraved itself on my consciousness: a revelation about women’s possibilities and further evidence of our unbalanced society. I was reminded of that event recently when I read Denise Kiernan’s The Girls of Atomic City, which relates the stories of women like Jim’s aunt who seized opportunity and made their contributions to ending the war. The “girls” (and some of them were girls) of Atomic City moved to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, before Oak Ridge, Tennessee even existed. The stories of these women, as told by Kiernan, are also the history of the secretive community created to work on “The Product.”

     The society at Oak Ridge reflected life in America at that time: It was segregated: black women like Kattie Strickland lived in quarters segregated from whites, left their children behind in Alabama to be raised by their grandmothers, and held menial jobs. It was social: the community provided an active social life with dances, bowling alleys, movies, and clubs. Some, like secretary Celia Szapka, leak pipe inspector Colleen Rosen, and statistician extraordinaire Jane Greer, met the men they would marry.

     The society was also different from the rest of America: Women slogged through mud to get to work, often carrying their shoes until they reached their workplace. They lived in a secret society, unable to speak about their work, even to others on “The Reservation.” Many of the women had jobs they would not have been offered on the outside, like Virginia Spivey, a chemist who analyzed “The Product,” guessing its content, but not its potential use. Like all those working at Oak Ridge, her position was so compartmentalized that she (and all the other women and men) did not know what “The Project” was, until the bomb exploded over Japan. 

     This is a wonderfully written book, with personal stories, exalting the achievements of women without touting them, and discussing the science behind the project in understandable terms. It also demonstrates how women seized opportunity when it was presented. I think Jim’s aunt would be tickled at women’s progress and would raise her martini glass in salute.

November 3, 2014

Women Movie Producers

I almost missed the most intriguing story in the October 10 issue of Entertainment Weekly. The cover drew my attention to Katy Sagal’s “Don’t you DARE!” look. Then, in the foreground, I stared into the squint in Charlie Hunnam’s eyes and noted the smoke from the flaming bottle in his hand that appears likely to singe the tattoo off his arm at any minute. Only then did I notice the letters in large white type superimposed on their bodies.  “Sons of Anarchy!” it read, with a large exclamation mark after it, although I’m still not sure why it merited an exclamation mark. It took a second look before I saw the teaser at the top of the magazine, in smaller white letters, “The Women who Really Run Hollywood.”

Nicole Sperling, the writer of the story, proclaims that women producers have been successful in Hollywood. The list of movies made by women producers is impressive and includes some stars: Kathleen Kennedy, who learned the business while working with Steven Spielberg, was nominated for an Oscar eight times; Megan Ellison finances risky projects, like Zero Dark Thirty and American Hustle; Darla K. Anderson is the highest grossing producer, on average, among both men and women.

Proclaiming “success” at this point, however, might be questionable. According to Sperling, although women represent only 18 percent of producers in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, “since 1973, 65 Best Picture nominees have listed at least one woman as a credited producer.” I did the math and that means that 28% of the movies nominated had a woman producer. While this means that the percentage of nominations exceeds the percentage of women in the business, it is still a dismal statistic. And the numbers are even worse for cinematographers, writers, and directors.

This makes me wonder. What would happen if women stopped paying for movies unless women were involved in the production of the film? That would make the cover of Entertainment Weekly. Our action could be labeled anarchy and that would indeed deserve an exclamation mark!

October 13, 2014

Vienna and Beyond

Vienna was bookended by two fabulous meals. The first night we ate tafelspitz at Plachutta’s restaurant. This is a dinner of boiled meat served with horseradish. For our version, the meal came to the table in the pot. First you ladle out a bowl of the broth and crispy vegetables, accompanied by the marrow that you scrape from the bones in the pot and spread on black bread. Then you remove the meat from the pot, the cut chosen by the customer from a diagram of the cow on the menu. There is also a pot of potatoes and this is accompanied with chive cream and horseradished applesauce for the meat. We shared one meal and still had leftovers.

We also made an afternoon jaunt to the Sacher Hotel to have the “original” sacher torte. We did, however, resist the menu at one restaurant that included Altwiener Kaiserschmarrn, translated on the menu as “Old Viennese Rubbish with homemade stewed apricots.”

It was such a relief to find that the churches in Vienna venerate the saints and not the archbishops as in Salzburg. Perhaps all archbishops were saints in past centuries? Even if I believed that, it was disconcerting to see archbishops staring out from the side altars rather than saints. The wealth of the Church always overwhelms me, but the wealth of the archbishops in Salzburg seemed to be a special case. They lived like royalty, even ruling the town openly like little kings.  

We made side trips to Budapest and Prague. Usually we prefer to be in a city for a time to “feel” the city. This time we popped in and out, assuming we might not have another chance to visit these cities, something I hope we don’t do again. There was more travel time than touring time. It also made us think that our reluctance to go on organized tours might be justified. “In just a few minutes,” the tour guide says, from the front of the bus, “we will pass a beautiful church, built in the [fill in the blank] century. Get your cameras ready. Okay, now! Snap a picture!” And the bus never slows down.

Old Budapest
Historic Prague

One of the highlights of Vienna was touring the opera house. There are tickets priced for everyone and individual translators at every seat. The tickets range in price from 150 euros down to a few euros for a standing-room-only ticket the day of the performance. One traveler we met said that he had paid three euros for a place in the standing balcony. “There are rails,” he said, “so you don’t feel like you’re off-balance or anything.” Or you can choose to watch the opera for free. A giant screen outside the opera house broadcasts the performance inside.   

Outdoor Screen at Opera House

Individual Translators at Opera Seats

I was struck by the fact that the opera company assures that all citizens have an opportunity to attend, regardless of ability to pay. But then, this is not surprising when you learn that the opera house was one of the first buildings rebuilt after the bombings by the allies during World War II destroyed so much of the city.

I did find it amusing that the citizens protested loudly about how modern the building was when it was rebuilt. In my mind I compared it to the Palau de la Musica in Barcelona that we visited last year, and I chuckled.  

Grand Entry at Vienna Opera House

Grand Entry at Palau de la Musica in Barcelona

For me, this trip instilled a fascination with Maria Theresa, the only Habsburg woman to rule in the three centuries the dynasty was in power. She ruled for forty years, fighting wars while promoting commerce. In addition she gave birth to sixteen children, thirteen of them surviving beyond infancy. She used her daughters to form alliances with other realms, the most famous perhaps being the marriage of Maria Antonia (re-named Marie Antoinette by the French). She did play favorites, however. She preferred Maria Christina and allowed her to marry the man she loved, although even she married well.   

Vienna is a city of musicians. It was a magnet for Mozart, Johann Strauss, Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert, Wagner, Brahms and Schöenberg, to name but a few. Even my beloved Vivaldi came here to find fame and fortune. Unfortunately, he found neither and died here a pauper. Because my book on Vivaldi does not include his death I had not planned to do any research here, but the universe provides. While walking around one day we found a plaque marking the place where he had lived.

The night before we flew home, we went to Grieschenbeisl, a restaurant that has been on the same spot since 1447. It is a place that has always attracted artists and politicians. On one wall you can find signatures written by Wagner, Beethoven, Mozart, Mark Twain and Johnny Cash. For some reason, we wound up in a room where every table, except for ours and one other, was filled with women, in twos, threes, fours, even singles. I’m not sure why we are placed there but I felt very comfortable. We ordered wiener schnitzel. When I gasped at the size, one of the women dining alone tittered at my response. The plates were huge and we should have shared as we did with the Tafelspitz. Now we are home, savoring memories as we did the food.

Sentinel for the General's Belvedere in Vienna 

Raison d'Etre for our Trip this Year

Some of the readers of this blog do not know my husband, Gary Zimmerman, so I will introduce him to you. A retired chemistry professor and university CEO, he spends his retirement running a genealogy library. In addition he has some personal clients and one of those decided not only to research his family, but to learn more about the story of the ancestor for whom he is named. He engaged others to assist him and Gary was one of those contributors.

The ancestor is Dr. Michael Berolzheimer who managed to leave Bavaria just days before the Nazis came to demand his passport. He had been fortunate enough to move some of his art to the United States, but much more of it was confiscated by the Nazis. Efforts have been underway to restore the art and there has been some success. The documentation of Dr. Michael’s life resulted in a book and that book was launched into the world at the Jewish Museum in Munich.

We were fortunate, along with family members, art restoration experts, authors, researchers, and others to be present for that event. It was an immense blessing and I hope to uncover the layers of meaning as I write more about this event. The participants were from all over the country and the world. The book launch was preceded and followed by time at Dr. Michael’s home in Bavaria (which is now a wonderful bed and breakfast owned by a German bank). The combination of accents and outlooks that were joined together in this endeavor was almost magical. It serves as an example of how connected we all are, how much we all have in common, and how easy it is to connect with people you barely know if you just sit at table with them.