Monthly Archives: April 2012

On the Trail of the Titanic

Kevin Rushby for The Guardian, April 13, 2012:

Staring out into the icy gloom from the ship’s bridge, I have an ominous feeling that something is about to go wrong. And then it does. A vast pale shape looms up from the darkness. An iceberg? But it’s a clear night and we’re much too far south … There is a moment of bewilderment, then much shouting: “Full astern!” and “Hard-a-starboard!” The bows begin to turn away from the ice.

I turn to the captain with a grin: “Congratulations. I think we just savedthe Titanic.” A fraction of a second later the bridge gives a sickening lurch. There’s a dull crunch followed by a cacophony of screeching and banging.

“Spoke too soon,” laughs the captain with a cheery nonchalance that ill becomes the master of a multi-million pound vessel that is about to sink. But this is not a real ship; it’s the most advanced marine simulator in the world. In fact, now that we had failed to save the Titanic, we could reprogramme and have a go at dodging U-boats in a second world war convoy, or unloading oil workers on to a storm-tossed rig off Newfoundland.

“It has taken years to develop,” says Captain Chris Hearne of the Marine Institute in the Newfoundland capital, St John’s. “But this is now the best place to learn about handling ships in the most dangerous conditions: huge tides, fog, ice, storms …”

As he speaks the simulator gives a confirmatory wobble. It is a remarkable experience: 360 degrees of visibility from a genuine ship’s bridge that rolls and shudders on hydraulic arms in response to computer-generated sea conditions. And this summer, as part ofCanada‘s contribution to the Titanic centenary, the simulator will be open to the public, with an actor on the bridge playing the role of Harold Bride, the Titanic’s junior radio officer, a survivor of the disaster. Since hiring the simulator normally costs around £4,000 a day, the experience is a snip at C$25 (about £15).

“We used all the data we could find to build the Titanic programme,” says Chris. “It threw up some interesting stuff. For example, we found that the rudder was good – the ship had very good manouevrability.” He is refering to concern at the time about the Titanic’s design, its rudder being too small for its three huge propellers.

St John's streetA street in St John’s, Newfoundland. Photographs by Kevin Rushby

Newfoundland’s connection with the Titanic might seem tenuous: after all, the ship never came here, nor did survivors or victims. But St John’s, a tough little town with a vibrant waterfront busy with sturdy ice-breaking ships, is undoubtedly the place to soak up the atmosphere of Atlantic sea-faring. It was – still is – the closest town to the dead ship, which lies 600km south-east of here. From here you can even take a £40,000 trip on a Russian-built submarine to visit the wreck. It is also a great place to spot icebergs, the gorgeous natural wonders that were the nemesis of what was at the time largest moving manmade object ever seen.

I am here a little early in the season, though. Icebergs come with the spring, and as I emerge from St John’s airport at sunset on an evening in early April, the temperature is well below zero, the trees are very bare, and the grass looks very dead. It seems the warmer weather needed to calve big icebergs has yet to arrive. I drive into town and take a side road up to Signal Hill, the promontory that overlooks the town and the Atlantic. The wind is spitting daggers of ice at the windscreen, but there’s some daylight left and I’m still hoping, against all the climatic evidence, for a glimpse of an iceberg. Will there be any out there?

There is only one other person crazy enough to be up on the hill as the barbed icy rain comes slashing down. A grizzled old-timer in a mountain of clothing, he points down to a white patch near the harbour mouth: “Some broken pack ice down there awready. An’ they got a growler with bergy bits over Tor Cove way.”

His accent is hard to understand. Is he an Irishman impersonating a Wurzel after a shot of Novocaine in the tongue? And what are growlers and bergy bits?

Unfortunately the weather is just too horrible for further conversation. We each retreat to our car. There is no sign of anything I would call an iceberg. I motor back into town and find warmth in one of St John’s many convivial bars. You would think you were in Ireland: the folk duo are playing Wild Mountain Thyme and The Fields of Athenry, but the inter-song banter is in authentic local dialect – I understand about one word in 10.

An old-timer at the bar listens to my tale of a Titanic-inspired journey to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia and frowns, “Is it a hundred years already? Who’d have thought it!”

I get him to explain the terminology. “Growlers are the littlest bergs: they keep low in the water and hiss and growl with escaping air. They hardly show anything above water. Very dangerous … You don’t see ’em … Not till it’s too late.”

The slightly larger bergy bits are, as I might have guessed, broken fragments of bigger icebergs. In the summer months, pubs in St John’s collect them to make cocktails.

Iceberg off NewfoundlandAn iceberg in the ocean south of Ferryland

Next day I visit the Johnson Geocentre on the slopes of Signal Hill, where the Titanic story is well told in archive photographs and storyboards. There are no souvenirs of debris, just the sort of steady and factual account you’d expect of a seafaring town. As I work my way through it, a man with the lined face of a fisherman asks to borrow a pen: “Want to note down the exact position of the ship when she went down.”

He’s an amateur painter who has been working on a rendition of the sinking. Why? “Dunno. Felt like it.”

He frowns. “People here know what tragedy is. I lost a grandfather to the ice. Went out on the seal-hunt in 1914 and never came back. Only last month a boy was lost: he was travelling back from his grandmother’s on a skiddoo and got disorientated in the pack ice.”

The sting of this recent tragedy is raw. I hear the tale from many people and can only wonder what kind of a place produces 14-year-olds with the courage to tackle night journeys alone across pack ice.

Exactly a century ago, on the night of 14 April, 1912, a very different tragedy was unfolding in these freezing waters. Despite at least nine warnings from other ships about ice in the area, some giving the precise coordinates of icebergs, the great ship was struck at 11.40pm and radioed for help. The call was picked up at Cape Race, 140km south of St John’s, where the Canadian Marconi company had built a station eight years earlier.

Next morning I set out to visit Cape Race, driving south along the Avalon peninsula. It is a forbidding landscape: forests of stunted spruce trees occasionally give way to tiny settlements. The houses are mostly weatherboarded, gardens non-existent; on the beaches bits of eroded whalebone lie among the driftwood. This is a tough place to make a living. At Ferryland I stop to look at the archaeological dig that has revealed one of the first attempts at a settlement here, in the 1620s – an attempt abruptly ended by a French attack in 1695.

A little further along, a flash of white catches my eye and I spend half an hour searching for side roads down to the shore. When I finally make it, I see a huge white iceberg slowly sailing past a rocky coast dotted with lovely old wooden houses. After Easter there are many operators along this coast keen to take visitors out on boats to see these natural wonders close up. I could sit for a long time, marvelling at the serene purity of the berg, but I have an appointment at Cape Race. A local man, David Myrick, is going to drive me up to the lighthouse and a new visitor centre.

He turns out to be an impish 60-year-old radio operator whose great-uncle, Jimmy Myrick, was at the wireless station that fateful night in 1912. Jimmy was a 14-year-old apprentice, but according to Myrick family legend, it was he who first heard the distress call and ran to fetch help.

Cape Race lighthouseCape Race lighthouse

This is still an extremely remote spot, with 30m cliffs and notorious fogs that have caused many wrecks. David Myrick grew up here in the station’s twilight years after the second world war: he spent his childhood playing on the cliffs and tracking moose across the moors behind.

The visitor centre makes a brave stab at capturing the history of the place, but the highlight is definitely David, who demonstrates the exact Titanic distress call in faultless Morse code.

“We spoke it like a second language,” he says. It is still used, he tells me, in amateur radio circles, and in the Arctic, where it can be clearer than other forms of communication.

We drive back towards St John’s and David keeps up a seamless banter of anecdotes, character assassinations and jokes. I ask about Newfie jokes. Aren’t the islanders the butt of all Canadian humour?

“I thought it was the English,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye. “Did you hear about the Englishman who was asked if he spoke to his wife while making love. He said, ‘Yes – if there’s a phone handy.'”

That irreverent sense of humour is, I discover, a common trait in Newfoundland. It also emerges in place names: Dildo, for example, is a small former whaling town. (The inhabitants claim the name was once the term for a peg used to secure oars on the old whaling boats.) Further up the coast hotelier Kevin Nolan shows me some of the other villages: Heart’s Desire and Come by Chance.

“These bays would once have been red with whale blood,” he tells me. “But now they are a great place to watch the humpbacks jumping among the icebergs.”

Kevin has his own connection to the Titanic tragedy: a staircase at his hotel, Ryan Mansion in St John’s, was carved by the same Belfast craftsmen who did the ship’s ornate first-class staircase.

Flying out of St John’s late one afternoon, I catch a brief glimpse of pack ice to the north and, calving away from it, specks of white that are bergs drifting south. The plane takes me to Halifax, Nova Scotia, a very different place from Newfoundland. It’s a busier and more American experience, but an essential one for Titanic buffs, as the city is home to the greatest concentration of debris and souvenirs from the wreck.

Deckchair at Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax. A deckchair at Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax

I start with the Titanic exhibition in the Museum of the Atlantic (, a superb evocation of the disaster, with fascinating artefacts picked up by local sailors who were sent out in rescue parties. Among other pieces, there’s a deckchair, a medicine cabinet and several pieces of carved wood from the first-class dining room.

More evocative is the Fairview Lawn Cemetery ( where 121 victims are buried. The White Star Line gave each a simple headstone in three curving lines that echo the bows of a ship. Younger female visitors have been known to swoon before the grave of one J Dawson. But this is the resting place of Joseph; the Jack Dawson of the James Cameron film was entirely fictional.

In a Halifax bar, I meet Rob Gordon, a news reporter who has been covering Titanic stories for decades. Like many locals he has a connection with the story: his great Aunt Ethel was one of the survivors, even though she initally refused to get into a lifeboat.

“Ethel was legendarily stubborn and pig-headed. She said, ‘I don’t think the boat’s gonna sink’, and went back down to her cabin.”

Fortunately, a steward went down to her and insisted she get back on deck, thus saving her life. Her father and brother went down with the ship and their bodies were never found.

I ask Rob why he thinks the story lingers so in the public imagination: “Every class of society was on that ship. And doesn’t it go the way you’d think – the first-class passengers survive and the third-class folk die? It’s an everyman story that we can all understand.”

Halifax’s Five Fishermen restaurant ( has great seafood and Edwardian period atmosphere. It is also where some of the bodies were stored after the disaster.

South of Halifax is a paradise of small coves and inlets where wooden cabins preside over aquamarine bays and forested promontories. At Lower Prospect I find a memorial to the 535 people who perished aboard another White Star liner, the Atlantic, in 1873.

Standing looking at it, I recall that back in St John’s, Chris Hearnes had spoken of the world’s worst maritime disaster, the 4,375 people who died on the Philippine ferry Doña Paz in 1987. On these wild shores none of these tragedies goes forgotten.

Way to go

How to get there
Air Canada ( flies year-round from Heathrow to Halifax from about £650, and to St John’s (five hours from Britain) in summer

Ryan Mansion (+1 709 753 7926, in St John’s, which was built at the same time as Titanic, has doubles from C$285 (about £160)

Further information
Blair Beed (+1 902 455 9977) does entertaining tours of Halifax’s Titanic sites. See also, Book the Titanic simulator (155 Ridge Road) at Accommodation at Heathrow through Holiday Extras (0800 1313 777, Rail travel between York and London with East Coast (0845 722 5225, from £26



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Seventieth Anniversary Bataan Death March

Rick Radin for, April 8, 2012:

Monday is the 70th anniversary of one of the most harrowing chapters in the history of the U.S. military — the defeat of U.S. and Philippine forces defending the Bataan Peninsula, a 60-mile-long strip of land east of Manila.

In the days and months that followed the fall of Bataan, the Japanese forced American and Filipino troops to walk more than 60 miles to a prison camp. More than 15,000 of the troops died during what came to be called the Bataan Death March.

The daughter of one Filipino veteran is helping to organize a commemoration of the fall of Bataan, to be held Tuesday on the Cal State East Bay campus.

“When I was growing up in the Philippines, I used to hear about the war from my father, who survived the Death March, as well as his incarceration,” said Cecilia Gaerlan, whose 92-year-old father, Luis, a San Francisco resident, has difficulty speaking because of a traumatic brain injury.

Cecilia Gaerlan, of Berkeley, has written a novel titled “In Her Mother’s Image” that describes the experiences of a young girl in the Philippines during the war and as an adult 30 years later.

She said the commemoration was inspired by the sponsors’ concerns that, unlike Pearl Harbor, the events at Bataan have been largely forgotten.

“I was surprised to learn that not too many people know about it,” she said.

The fall of Bataan came during the darkest days for U.S. forces in the Pacific after the Japanese attack on Pearl


Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

On Dec. 8, the Japanese attacked the Philippines, where the U.S. Army Air Corps had concentrated the bulk of its Pacific forces.

By January 1942, 12,000 U.S. and 63,000 Filipino troops had withdrawn to Bataan, in eastern Luzon. They held out for three months as rations dwindled and disease spread among the troops.

After the allied surrender, the Japanese marched the surviving defenders more than 60 miles to Camp O’Donnell, a prison at the southern end of the peninsula. Along the way, more than 15,000 of the troops died of disease or malnutrition, or were shot or bayoneted to death.

Many more died in the camp in the weeks that followed, and many of those who survived spent the rest of the war in forced-labor camps in Japan and throughout the occupied territories.

“They went into captivity in very bad shape,” said Fred Baldassarre, of Hayward, whose father, James, was a Bataan survivor. “In the weeks before they surrendered, 50 to 200 men a week were dying of diseases or starvation. They had no business marching around anywhere.”

James Baldassarre was in Manila when he received orders to go to Bataan after the Japanese attack, Fred Baldassarre said

“After the death march and Camp O’Donnell, he was sent to Manchuria,” he said. “The first winter was pretty horrific, where guys were coming from the tropics and having to deal with arctic conditions.”

After the war, James Baldassarre testified at the war crimes trial of Gen. Masaharu Homma, the Japanese commander during the invasion, Fred Baldassarre said. Homma was convicted and executed in 1946.

The fall of Bataan came at the beginning of a battle for the Pacific that was to continue for more than three years, culminating in the atomic attacks on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Japanese surrender. The few surviving Bataan veterans are getting up in years.

“There are no more than 10 left in the Bay Area and the three youngest ones are 88,” said Fred Baldassarre, who heads the historical society Battling Bastards of Bataan. “They joined the army when they were 16.”

Many affected by the war were even younger. John Ream, of Kensington, a former civilian prisoner of war, was 10 when his family was sent from Manila to a prison camp in the mountains. He and his father, mother and three sisters sat out most of the war there, where he said conditions were bad, but better than those in the military prisons and labor camps.

“We had two missionary women who shared the same toothbrush for three years,” said Ream, of the Bay Area Civilian Ex-Prisoners of War, and one of the sponsors of Tuesday’s remembrance. “Cooking oil was impossible to obtain, so we were using cold cream as cooking oil when we could find something to cook.”

J.D. Merritt, of Cape Coral, Fla., a friend of Fred Baldassarre, was in an army field hospital on Bataan when it was overrun by Japanese troops. He said he fled into the jungle when the Japanese began bayoneting the patients.

Merritt, 92, eventually was captured and spent the war in forced labor as a stevedore on the Manila docks. He said his Filipino girlfriend died in a refugee camp when Japanese troops burned it to the ground.

Only about 13,000 of the 75,000 U.S. and Filipino forces that surrendered at Bataan were still alive at the end of the war, Merritt said.




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Eastern Europe’s Hitler Nostalgia

Written by Michael Goldfarb for The Global Post, April 2, 2012:

WARSAW, Poland — In the Baltic States they celebrate their liberation from the Soviet Union in the middle of March.

Winter’s worst lies grey on the streets, but that doesn’t stop people in Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, and Riga, capital of Latvia, from marching solemnly to honor the heroes who fought vainly to keep the Soviet Union at bay.

Among those who march are groups who honor those who fell wearing the uniform of the Waffen SS, the military arm of the notorious Nazi paramilitary unit. These SS veteran marches are not fringe events. Thousands march and thousands more turn out to cheer them on.

The parades’ permits are applied for by members of the governing party in parliament. Marchers are defended by the government.

Latvia’s president Andris Berzins reportedly praised the SS veterans on Latvian television last week, “It’s crazy to think they’re war criminals.” Berzins added, “Many people lost their lives for the future of Latvia. I don’t see any basis to deny this … it seems to me it’s not acceptable to dishonor these people, before whom we should bow our heads,” he said.

It’s not just on Independence Day that the Nazi past intrudes on public life.

In 2008, the Lithuanian parliament passed a law banning the display of Soviet and Nazi symbols.

In 2010, a local Lithuanian court ruled that Swastikas were exempt from that law because the twisted crosses were ‘Lithuania’s historical heritage rather than symbols of Nazi Germany.” It would be easier to accept that explanation if the crowds didn’t cheer the marchers on with cries of “Juden Raus!” or “Jews out!” as eyewitnesses have attested.

The official tolerance for marches honoring those who fought with the SS is part of a general trend in the Baltic States and all along the eastern borders of Europe: an embrace of a form of exclusionary nationalism that belongs to the 19th century, rather than the globalized 21st. It is the kind of nationalism that underpinned Hitler’s theory of “One People and One Reich.”

In recent weeks, Latvian voters rejected a proposition that Russian be acknowledged as the country’s second official language. Around 27 percent of Latvia’s population of 2 million is native Russian speaking. When the votes were counted Latvian president Berzins, said, “An overwhelming majority of Latvian citizens have expressed their unequivocal support for one of the core constitutional values, the national language.”

Tensions between Lithuania and Poland are also high over language. Officially, government forms and all shop signs are supposed to be in the Lithuanian language. The largest minority in Lithuania is Polish, around 6.7 percent of the population. There are significant differences in the Polish language from Lithuanian.

Lithuania’s Polish minority is demanding the right to spell their names on official documents in Polish rather than in the Lithuanian alphabet. They also want Polish shops to be able to put signs up in Polish. Quantifying the strength of the ultra-nationalists is almost impossible. Dovid Katz, an American scholar based in Vilnius who runs, says it is sizable.

“Ultra-nationalism is a real trend and it’s being mainstreamed. Many of its supporters are young and they have dynamism.” Katz adds, “It’s hard too imagine that these EU and NATO countries are taking up this nativist ideology.”

Certainly, the Baltic states’ counterparts in the EU and NATO are deeply concerned. On March 11th, the American Embassy in Vilnius backed an alternative parade, “Celebrate Freedom” organized by leading human rights campaigners.

The Council of Europe published a report on the Nazi marches in Latvia in February. It said, “All attempts to commemorate persons who fought in the Waffen SS and collaborated with the Nazis, should be condemned. Any gathering or march legitimizing in any way Nazism should be banned.”

The report went on to state that the EC, “cannot but express concern about any attempt to justify fighting in the Waffen SS and collaborating with the Nazis, as it risks fueling racism, xenophobia, antisemitism and intolerance … ”

That is the key point. The endorsement of Nazi collaboration by some officials gives encouragement to racists and violent xenophobes. It discriminates against minorities and preserves an official place for the kind of racial hatred which has watered too much of the soil that lies in the land between the Baltic and the Black Sea.

The reason for this resurgence in ugly ultra-nationalism is an unanswered question of history: who was worse, Hitler or Stalin? This may seem like a question for the seminar room, but not here. In the countries between the Baltic and the Black Sea the question is deeply emotional. It has been rephrased this way: Does the blood of someone killed fighting the Soviet Union cry out louder from the grave than someone who died fighting with the Soviets against the Nazis? And what about those who were simply murdered without taking up arms?

In the eastern borderlands of Europe, those deep questions are the meat of politics. When a small group of Lithuania’s Social Democrats signed an international declaration in January on the 70th anniversary of the Wannsee conference; when the Nazis initiated the “Final Solution” for Europe’s Jews.

The declaration said it was wrong to diminish the Holocaust by saying it was “equal to, similar to or equivalent to” Soviet Communism’s crimes. Lithuania’s foreign minister, Audronius Azubalis, tore into them, “In essence, this sort of rhetoric by the Social Democrats repeats the Kremlin’s ideological positions, that Stalin is good and Hitler bad. It isn’t possible to find differences between Hitler and Stalin except in their moustaches (Hitler’s was shorter).”

The statement gave offense, but Azubalis was simply playing on a view that is common in the area. Marek Chodakiewicz, Polish-born professor of history at Washington’s Institute of World Politics tells an old Polish joke: “Whom do we fight first? Nazis or Communists? Let’s fight the former first: business before pleasure.”

The importance of history

Historians and sociologists around Europe’s eastern edge all agree: the basic questions of politics in the area have been settled.

All the countries are ruled by right-of-center governments who buy into free-market economics.

“Ideology does not drive political discussion in Poland. Politicians, journalists, when they get into arguments, it’s about history,” says Jan Olaszek, a historian at Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance, a government created, quasi-official institution that uses historical research for activist purposes — bringing prosecutions for “Crimes against the Polish Nation.”

That view is echoed down the road in L’viv Ukraine. “History is extremely politicized here,” says Sofia Dyak, director of the Center for Urban History in Eastern Europe. “History is not an objective study. It is about serving an ideological agenda. It used to be Soviet. Now it is about a nationalist history. So it is used in a highly selective manner.”

Things can get very twisted in this highly selective, political use of the historical record. Much of that twisting can be found in the persistence of anti-Semitism in the region. One hundred years ago, the area from the Baltic to the Black Sea was the heartland of world Jewry. Today there are virtually no Jews left. Between 90 and 95 percent were murdered in the Holocaust, those who survived left for Israel, the United States and other countries.

“Lack of Jews is not a problem for anti-Semites,” says Polish sociologist Rafal Pankoswki. “Anti-Semites don’t need Jews around to hate them.” In Pankowski’s view, anti-Semitic language, “is a kind of discourse of hostility not just to Jews but to the whole idea of diversity. It is a form of social protest to express anger about things.”

Part of the new nationalist mythology is based on old canards. Jews are an international cabal that seek to rule the world. Soviet communism was part of that plot. Marx was Jewish, right? So was Trotsky, so were many of the early Bolsheviks. Even today in Poland, Pankowski points out, liberals have the epithet “zydokomuna,”which means, “Jew communist” thrown at them when they defend anything from gay rights to the European Union.

According to Pankowski, using the word Jew as a general term of abuse occurs most at soccer games. “At matches fans abuse each other by calling each other Jews. At one match last year in Przesow one set of fans unfurled a banner with the slogan ‘Death to the Hook-Nosed Ones’ written over a stereotyped picture of a Jewish man with a big nose wearing a yarmulke.”

Were there any Jews in the stadium?

“No,” says Pankowski. “This is how fans act everywhere.”

In Lithuania, the explicit connection in many minds between Jews and the Soviet Union is demonstrated in the bizarre case of two elderly Holocaust survivors, Fania Branstovsky, a librarian at the Vilnius Yiddish library, and Dr. Rachel Margolis, a biologist. Both escaped from the Vilnius ghetto during the war. Both joined Soviet-backed partisans fighting the Nazis.

In 2008, when they were both in their late 80′s, criminal investigators, in a glare of publicity announced they intended to arrest the pair for war crimes for their alleged participation in an action around a Lithuanian village in 1944 in which civilians were killed. No charges were brought, no apologies were given. Although both women, now in their 90′s, are alive to receive such an apology. Whether the ultra-nationalists will continue to assert themselves into national life is unclear.

Dovid Katz notes, “Lithuanian Prime Minister Andreas Kubilius doesn’t have a fascist bone in his body.” But Katz notes, while many politicians disapprove of the ultra-nationalists they keep silent. “The politicians could easily condemn this. There is a total lack of moral courage.”

What is odd about the entrenchment of ultra-nationalism is that the area was always one of shifting national boundaries and mixed populations. Every country in the region has been subject to repeated subjugation to larger countries’ imperial designs. The Soviet Union was only the most recent. One hundred years ago none of these countries were independent either. They were subject to Russian, Prussian and Austro-Hungarian imperial hegemony.

Many historians and politicians in the region constantly remind western visitors that their newly liberated nations are only just being allowed to go through historical processes America and western Europe went through in the 18th and 19th century.

Professor Marek Chodakiewicz says, “The people of the Intermarium, the lands between the Black and Baltic Seas, were frozen in the Soviet totalitarian iceberg for 50 to 70 years. Now they are finally free to kvetch. And kvetch they do. It is a necessary, therapeutic, and cathartical exercise. Without coming to grips with the past, there is chaos.” But it’s a question of how you come to grips with the past.

To paraphrase George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past accurately are condemned to repeat it.”


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Why the Titanic Sank

Rossella Lorenzi for Discovery News, April 2, 2012:

A perfect storm of fateful events conspired to cause the tragic sinking of the Titanic nearly a century ago, according to a study looking at the math and physics behind the tragedy.

Bound from Southampton to New York, the Royal Mail Steamer Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic at 11:40 p.m. on Sunday, April 14, 1912, on her unfortunate maiden voyage. Within three hours, she sank to a depth of about 13,000 feet and more than two-thirds of the 2,224 passengers and crew perished at sea.

Had the “unsinkable” luxury liner stayed afloat longer, the tragic loss of life could have been mitigated by rescue ships getting to the disaster scene.

“This is the real question of the Titanic mystery: How could a 46,000-ton ship sink so quickly?” science writer Richard Corfield wrote in the current issue of Physics World.

Taking an in-depth look at the structural deficiencies of the ship and the events of April 14, 1912, Corfield concluded that “no one thing conspired to send Titanic to the bottom of the Atlantic.”

“It was a classic ‘event cascade,'” Corfield told Discovery News.

According to two inquiries carried out in 1912, in both the United States and United Kingdom, many circumstances concurred to bring about the disaster: The Titanic had been sailing too fast, Capt. Edward J. Smith had paid too little attention to iceberg warnings, and there had not been enough lifeboats onboard.

The inquiries brought to light other details, such as the absence of binoculars in the crow’s nest and the fact that the senior radio operator had not passed on a crucial ice warning received from the British merchantshipSS Mesaba.

“Mesaba gave the precise location (42° to 41°, 25′ N; 49° to 50°, 30′ W) of an area of icebergs that, at the time, approximately 9.40 p.m., was only 50 miles dead ahead of the Titanic,” Corfield wrote.

The message, which read “Saw great number large icebergs also field ice. Weather clear,” was interpreted as nonurgent as it was not prefixed with “MSG” (“Masters’ Service Gram”), which would have required a personal acknowledgement from the captain.

The Titanic was the most modern ship of her day. She featured the latest technological innovations, yet  some material used in her construction turned out to be inadequate.

Poorly cast wrought-iron rivets caused the steel plates on the hull to come apart.

Corfield cited the work of two metallurgists, Tim Foecke at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology, and Jennifer Hooper McCarty, then at Johns Hopkins University in the United States, who in the mid-2000s combined their own analysis with historical records from the shipyard in Belfast where the Titanicwas built.

“Foecke and McCarty found that the rivets at the front and rear fifths of the Titanic were made only of ‘best’ quality iron, not ‘best-best’, and had been inserted by hand,” wrote Corfield.

“Best rivets” were cheaper but also featured a higher concentration of impurities known as “slag.” Lab tests have shown that the heads of such rivets are particularly vulnerable to stresses and can pop off, causing the hull to “unzip.”

ANALYSIS: Did the Moon Conspire To Bring Down Titanic?

“Then there are the maths and physics of the collision: six compartments flooded when, if it had only been four, the ship would not have sunk,” wrote Corfield.

As if that weren’t enough, the climate thousands of miles away may have contributed to the sinking.

At a time when the weather was warmer than usual in the Caribbean, a complex interplay of two surface-water currents — the Gulf Stream intersecting with the glacier-carrying Labrador Current in the North Atlantic — as well as an extraordinarily high spring tide three months earlier, concentrated icebergs “as if they were tank traps,” said Corfield.

He concluded that such a chain of unfortunate circumstances, called “event cascade” by those who study disasters, basically led to the Titanic‘s demise.

“The best planning in the world cannot eliminate every factor that might negatively impact on the design and operation of a complicated machine such as a massive passenger ship,” wrote Corfield.

“Eventually, and occasionally, enough of these individual factors combine and the event cascade becomes long enough and complicated enough that tragedy cannot be averted,” he said.

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Playing for Keeps: The Texas Basketball Sabbath Showdown and its Religious Implications

Here is a story about the persistence of religious intolerance that threatens to undermine American values.  It concerns the game of basketball, high school teams from religious schools and constitutional rights.   While it is a long article, it should be read in its entirety to understand the positions of those involved.  The article was written by Edwin Black and appeared in The Huffington Post on March 26, 2012:

At about 8 p.m. on Feb. 27, constitutional attorney Nathan Lewin was sitting half-asleep in the aisle seat of an Amtrak train speeding south from New York to Washington, D.C. Seated next to him was his daughter and law partner Alyza Lewin. Shortly after crossing the bridge into New Jersey, as red and green track lights blurred past, his cell phone rang. Struggling against the din of a train car filled with passengers, and the exhaustion of a tiring day in Manhattan, Lewin tried to make out what was being said on the cell phone. “You are located where?” he asked. “Did you say Texas?”

From that Monday night moment and for the next four days, a tornadic frenzy of phone calls, text messages, e-mails, conference calls and voice mails was unleashed between parents and attorneys in Texas and Washington. It would all change a number of lives forever and make headlines worldwide as an international sports drama.

Beren Jewish Academy of Houston, an Orthodox Jewish high school, fielding a superb basketball team, had battled its way to the semi-finals of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS). Ironically, although TAPPS was a sports league of private and religious schools, the association was determined not to honor any Sabbath except Christian Sunday. Moreover, the semi-final playoffs were deliberately scheduled for March 2, a Friday night, which meant that Orthodox Jewish students could not participate. TAPPS angrily and steadfastly denied all requests for accommodation for Beren’s Jewish kids, refusing to move the game up just a few hours even though Covenant, the team Beren was scheduled to play, agreed to the proposed revised game time. That triggered a legal challenge in federal court which quickly led to TAPPS reversing its decision and rescheduling the Friday night game to early Friday afternoon in time for the Beren team to play. The pumped Beren team handily won the game. Headlines raced across the planet trumpeting a victory for the Beren team, for religious accommodation, for sports and for great storylines.

But unseen dramas swirled behind the headlines. None of the lawyers, students or parents knew what they would do until just moments before the conflicted attorneys and plaintiffs decided at the very last minute to file for a temporary restraining order. While many are still cheering the triple court victory — in the court of law, on the court of basketball and in the court of public opinion — deep uncertainty among the parties remains, both among the seeming winners and the clear losers.

Even now, weeks later, the head of the Beren Academy is unable to say “thank you” to the attorneys for the prodigious effort mounted on his students’ behalf. The Texas Sabbath showdown was nothing less than a clash of cultures and personalities on all sides, including some of those on the same side.

Perhaps the root of the problem was TAPPS itself, a closely knit, Sunday-observing Christian basketball league invented in the late 1970s. TAPPS was unwillingly thrust into the modern world of interfaith cooperation by the Beren controversy. Three decades ago, the few dozen Texan Christian schools comprising TAPPS were in their own closed-off world of sports, observing Sunday Sabbath and playing on Fridays and Saturdays. Three decades later, the association has grown tenfold to between 200 to 250 schools — not because it solicited new members, as TAPPS director Ed Burleson proudly avers. Burleson, a traditional Southern Baptist, explained that “we all recognized Sunday as the day of worship. The bylaws were written to state that TAPPS would not schedule any competition or activities on Sunday.” At that time, Burleson recounts, there were no member schools that observed their Sabbath from Friday sunset until Saturday sunset.

But as the joys of athletic excellence spread to other Texas parochial schools, several non-Sunday Sabbath observers, such as those from the Orthodox Jewish and Seventh-day Adventist tradition, approached TAPPS to join. Being Christian in identity but not in name, the organization created an unaccommodating doorway for Orthodox Jewish and Seventh-day Adventist schools. Although TAPPS’ bylaws allowed for the start times of games to be moved by mutual consent of the teams playing the game, the board informed these Saturday Sabbath observing schools that the semi-final and final rounds were nonetheless traditionally played on Friday evening and Saturday. Assuming that they would address the final championship scheduling issue when and if it ever arose, some eight Jewish, Adventist and other schools, including Beren, played season after season.

An uneasy competitive environment ensued. By admitting to the league but not accommodating Saturday Sabbath observers, TAPPS could cling to some semblance of its Christian and non-ecumenical identity while seeming to obey the law and not discriminate against other religions. Indeed, when asked about the essence of interfaith cooperation by TAPPS, Burleson corrected, “We don’t embrace all faiths. We don’t work with all faiths.” Willingly relegated to second class, Jews and Adventists nonetheless felt they could inhale the rarified benefits of sports competition, assuming they could never even make the playoffs. If they did, their conviction would rule their hearts and they would just sit out the game rather than break their Sabbath. As Beren’s head of school Rabbi Harry Sinoff explained, “The sacred mission will trump excellence in the secular world,” adding, “We were willing to live with that.” Rabbi Sinoff insisted, “The real victory for me is standing up for your convictions without blinking” and observing the Saturday Sabbath. “The rest,” he quipped, “is just basketball.”

Then something happened. Beren’s basketball team got really good.

Was it time for Beren to join the ranks of other Texas religious students? Was it time for TAPPS to bend by a few hours and accommodate other religions? Both Beren and TAPPS were too comfortable in the way it has always been to imagine the way it could be. But both would reluctantly be brought into the new era.

Enter Nathan Lewin, half-asleep in that fast-moving Amtrak car, hearing from a Beren parent stepping away from a wedding in Brooklyn to make the call. The parent, Etan Mirwis, explained that back home in Texas, the academy’s kids had been good enough to qualify for the semis but were being forcefully denied participation by TAPPS. Why? Because they were Jewish and the league would not change the game time. Lewin woke up.

America’s most experienced litigator on behalf of Jewish causes, often referred to as “Defender of the Tribe,” sprang into action. Honorary president of the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, Lewin earned his reputation as an intrepid courtroom champion. He has been up to the Supreme Court 28 times. Moreover, he has secured highly contested, well-publicized judgments against the government of Russia for seizing historical archives of the Jewish Chabad group, against Hamas funders in the United States for enabling terrorism, and against the U.S. Army for denying a Jewish chaplain the right to wear a beard in the military.

It was clear from e-mails that TAPPS and Burleson would not budge. Beren Academy officials politely requested a schedule accommodation, as did parents. High-profile letters were sent by the Anti-Defamation League, Texas Senator John Cronyn, Houston Mayor Annise D. Parker and numerous sports luminaries. Pressure from growing media coverage added to the movement. All of it only caused TAPPS and its director to hunker into angry intransigence. One demure, almost obsequious letter from Beren requesting to advance the schedule just a few hours was met with a stern and explicit e-mail from Burleson:

“This is to advise you that the TAPPS Executive Board has voted to deny your appeal to re-schedule certain games in the State Basketball Tournament on March 2 & 3, 2012. The fact that your team participated in the bi-district, area and regional rounds of the play-offs, when it was not able to participate in the scheduled semi-final and finals games appears to be a violation of Section 138, C, 3, e.” [Burleson added in bold type.] “Upon qualifying for the playoffs, schools must notify the TAPPS, office in writing if their team will not participate in all play-off games … If for any reason, the team cannot follow the schedule as provided by TAPPS, the school shall remove itself from the play-offs without penalty so that the next highest ranked team may represent the district in the play-offs.”


Another statement from Burleson brusquely rebuffed any notion of inclusiveness with these words: “I don’t recall ‘inclusive’ being in our constitution.” It was not clear whether Burleson was referring to the constitution of TAPPS or the Constitution of the United States — or both.

Taking their offensive to a higher level, TAPPS announced that its board (said by Burleson to be comprised of six Protestants and three Catholics) had already voted to default the game in the favor of the opposing Christian team, which did not have a Friday night problem. Therefore, Beren had lost before the first dribble.

From the outset, Lewin knew TAPPS and Burleson would not bend absent a federal court order. Immediate litigation would be necessary if the TAPPS policy was to be challenged in time to reschedule the Friday night game. By sunrise on Tuesday, Lewin reached out to the seasoned litigators of a top Dallas law firm, Carrington Coleman, seeking pro bono assistance. Lewin laid out his legal strategy on the grounds of interference with religious freedom. Richard Rohan, one of Carrington’s top attorneys, by chance an Orthodox Jew himself, stepped up to the plate to help draft the complaint for a temporary restraining order.

E-mails began to blaze. With distribution lists of five to seven names at a volley, and with many more forwarded in or BCC’d, hundreds flew back and forth. Recipient inboxes began filling up with opinions, status updates, questions, late-breaking insights and confidence builders. As soon as one e-mail was read, ten more appeared. File, delete, forward, print, file, file, file. Hour after hour. Augmenting the e-mails were numberless text messages and numerous conference calls with some participants sitting at their desks while others participated while standing on street corners.

Parent Mirwis, the driving force and a lead plaintiff, recalled, “By the time I landed back in Texas, I had more than 120 e-mails, half from the small group of people at the school who wanted to exert pressure to see if we could publicize this social injustice … and the other half from the legal team. From Tuesday through Thursday, I was running through hundreds of phone messages, text messages, and emails. It was the most consuming three days I ever experienced in my life.”

By Wednesday afternoon, Feb. 29, Lewin and the legal team were convinced they must file the suit that day in the coming hours. But who were the plaintiffs? Parents? Students? The school? What about the Seventh-day Adventists? This Christian Church, like Beren, observes Saturday Sabbath. The Seventh-day Adventists had successfully rescheduled one Saturday soccer game, but three other attempts by the Adventists (over the past decade) to reschedule basketball semi-final games were roundly rebuffed by TAPPS. The Adventist church certainly had an interest in insuring that their Sabbath observance was also protected in the future. Consultations among the parties spiraled up.

The stars seemed aligned for the supposed plaintiffs and their litigators. On the one side, an intransigent and unaccommodating association of religious schools; on the other side, a squad of kids with knitted yarmulkes longing for a chance to score hoops. Initially, attorney Rohan, who was personally acquainted with many of the Beren families, thought he would be advancing the same goals that they had. Lewin assumed that the school would naturally be ready to support the action as a plaintiff. They were both wrong.

The school wanted nothing to do with the suit or the effort. Beren’s head of school Rabbi Sinoff verbalized the reluctance this way: “We do value success in the modern world. But not at the expense of who we are — Shomer Shabbos (strict Sabbath observers).” Rabbi Sinoff added a phrase right out of Jewish history stating, “This is about asking nicely, not about demanding a right. No demand.”

The entire case was stopped dead in its tracks. Rohan wondered if he could go ahead. “My concern was bringing upon Beren potentially negative hostile publicity. For me, this was personal. I would not have felt good about being a catalyst for that. I had a personal conundrum. But other attorneys here at the firm did NOT have a personal involvement. So the question was — should I be the lead attorney?”

As the parents and lawyers fell off to sleep that Wednesday, no one knew if the case would be filed or who the plaintiff would be if it were filed. But during the wee hours, two Beren basketball players wrote moving e-mails supporting a lawsuit and explaining their reasons for wanting a court challenge. When Lewin awoke on Thursday, he knew the case would have to be filed. But who would file it, and on behalf of whom?

The school and its reluctiphiles had not given up on backing down from a confrontation with TAPPS. A parent called vigorously protesting to Lewin. An eminent Orthodox rabbi even phoned to dissuade Lewin from moving ahead. Could Lewin at least delay the filing of court papers, beseeched the rabbi? Lewin replied to the rabbi that the time was now. To his legal team, Lewin stated that TAPPS and Burleson were little more than bullies. Little did he know that even then the bullies were preparing to back down. During an ad hoc board meeting, TAPPS decided that it would hold fast and resist all pressure — but would give in rather than fight any request for a temporary restraining order.

Thursday morning, March 1, before work, Lewin was praying at a New York City synagogue, where he discussed the case with other congregants who had already heard about the uproar in the New York Timesand on Fox News. They all encouraged Lewin to press ahead. One congregant told Lewin, “The whole world favors the students — except their school.”

As the sun rose that Thursday morning, Rohan had indeed slept on it and now was certain the lawsuit had to be launched. He found another attorney in the firm to take the lead position. Rohan’s name would be listed, but second. The finishing touches on the lawsuit asking for a temporary restraining order, a TRO, were cobbled together by the Lewins, Rohan and others. Long before many lawyers arrived at work that day, the papers were finished.

Lewin now knew he had student and parent plaintiffs. He knew he had a crack team of attorneys in Dallas. He knew his legal theory was sound and the papers were ready. He would be arguing the request for an injunction over the telephone to whatever federal judge would be assigned the case.

At 8:19 a.m. in Washington D.C., an hour earlier in Texas, Lewin used one finger to punch out a terse e-mail to the entire legal team. Subject: Fire When Ready.

Shortly thereafter, Rohan’s office pressed the button on their keyboard and electronically filed with the federal court asking for an immediate hearing later that day — within hours — to compel TAPPS to reschedule.

Lewin was right. Within two hours, before the parties even had the chance to appear before a judge, TAPPS backed down. Burleson issued a public statement agreeing to bend even before any TRO was issued. The game was re-scheduled from Friday night to Friday afternoon.

The vindicating high-fives could be heard slapping through the phones and e-mails.

By the end of that Thursday, March 1, Burleson seemed completely dejected by the reversal. In a phone interview at the end of a tumultuous day, Burleson stated, “I have found out over the past three days that anything is possible.” Asked if any good had come out of the controversy, he answered simply, “No.” To describe his unhappiness, Burleson referred to “Well over one hundred e-mails from people I do not know. I deleted some of them because they were just clogging my e-mail. Nasty phone calls — I have no idea how many I got. Maybe eight to 10 were vulgar and profane.”

Asked if this episode had created permanent bad blood, Burleson replied, “I won’t speculate on that. But,” he added, “this has been a very uncomfortable experience for me as an individual. It will remain with me a long time.”

Was this now an opportunity for TAPPS to reach out and embrace other faiths in its midst? Burleson rebuked that notion. Asked if he, as the director of a parochial school association, even knew any Jewish people, Burleson paused, and then answered, “I can’t think of a Jewish person that I have any contact with.” Burleson insisted the TAPPS policy of observing Sunday as a Sabbath and playing games on Friday night and Saturday had not changed — just this one game was pressured into a schedule change by the TRO.

The next day, a pumped-up Beren basketball team hit the court running. They won the playoff and the right to play in the championship game the next night after the Jewish Sabbath. The next night, the Beren team lost the championship by two baskets. But they won the greater battle by a generation. Some 1,700 people around the world watched the game, streamed live over the Internet. Player Isaac Mirwis Fedexed his two Jerseys, emblazoned with the number 13, to Washington D.C. Nathan and his daughter both proudly wore the Jerseys to the Purim festival in their synagogue.

But perhaps things were indeed changing in Texas. During the game, the plaintiff parents approached Burleson with good will and extended their hands. Now it was about the basketball. Just basketball. They reported that Burleson seemed to be smiling.

Shortly after the weekend games, Burleson issued an unexpected statement. Perhaps TAPPS had stepped through the doorway. In commenting on the Beren case, Burleson declared, “Our state is becoming more diverse. Because of that, we are reaching out to leaders around the state. We want to listen, to hear their concerns and most of all, to hear their ideas.” This entreaty was heralded by many as a potential vindication for modernity.

Then came a retreat back through the bunker door. In a subsequent statement, Burleson issued an unexpected legal rationale for refusing to accommodate other religions. “The Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS) is a private Organization,” stated Burleson in a policy mini-manifesto. “As such, it has the constitutional right of freedom of association, and like all other private associations, has the right to choose its membership based on a set of beliefs or practices that further its objectives. This legal principle has been clearly established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic & Institutional rights, Inc. 547 U.S. 47, 66 (2006); Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, 530 U.S. 640, 647-48 (2000); Roberts v. United States Jaycees, 468 U.S. 609, 622 (1984).”

The TAPPS legal promulgation segued into this telling presage: 

“Ultimately, no organization can accommodate everyone’s needs. If TAPPS cannot accommodate schedule changes for schools who observe a Saturday Sabbath, that decision is not a criticism or lack of respect for their beliefs or the free practice of their religion. It simply means that the practical exercise of their religion is not a practical fit for an organization that has and must continue to host its events and championships on weekends in order to best serve its membership. Neither is right or wrong, just different.”

This “freedom of association” declaration was a mere prelude to what TAPPS is calling a “survey” of its member schools to determine if the organization should become more inclusive or in essence remain a Christian-only and Sunday Sabbath-only association of religious schools. Burleson stated the survey would go out this week via SurveyMonkey. He expected his members to be split perhaps 50-50 on the organization’s future. 

While the survey read in a vacuum will undoubtedly seem like a genuine solicitation of member views, the survey is best read with a companion multi-page package separately circulated and designed to prejudice the answers. That package sets up the respondent with a reminder that TAPPS was organized as a Christian Sunday-only Sabbath-observing parochial school sports association, and retains the legal right of association with an exclusive religious group. The survey package concludes with a two-page diatribe entitled “Beren Academy” that virtually paints the school as devious in asking for a Sabbath accommodation, castigating that request as “completely contrary to … representations to the Executive Board three years earlier when seeking membership.”

The survey preparation package goes on to explain, albeit falsely, 

“At 9:53 a.m. on Thursday March 1, 2012, one day prior to the scheduled start of the state tournament, the TAPPS office received a copy of an Application for a Temporary Restraining Order and an Application for Temporary and Permanent Injunction. The lawsuit sought a delay of the entire State Basketball Tournament, not just the 2A Boys Division, unless Beren Academy was allowed to compete. Legally, TAPPS could have contested the TRO and won, but there was not enough time to secure a hearing before the start of the tournament. Faced with delaying the entire tournament, the TAPPS Executive Board made the decision to allow Beren to compete. To do otherwise would have caused the unnecessary re-scheduling of travel plans and hotel accommodations as well as additional expenses for the teams and fans of the other 36 TAPPS schools not involved in the Beren issue.”

The false re-telling of this very recent history pretends the injunction petition “sought a delay of the entire tournament,” when in fact Lewin and other lawyers sought just a single game to be advanced by only a few hours so Beren could participate. Moreover, the statement pretends there was no time to respond to the TRO. In truth, the federal judge appointed to the case was ready to hear arguments by all parties by telephone amply in advance — but the TAPPS board had already decided the day before being served not to contest a TRO demand should one emerge.


Therefore, what appears to be a dispassionate, almost scientific in-gathering of member beliefs and preferences is in reality a biased survey beckoning a return to the good old days before all those inconvenient minority groups were allowed in.

None of this has escaped the notice of the Texas Catholic Conference, which mustered its own membership to reconsider its involvement with TAPPS on the grounds that TAPPS had transgressed Christian principles. In a March 22 letter, Margaret McGettrick, Education Director of the Texas Catholic Conference Education Department, told Burleson, “I am writing to you at the direction of the 14 Catholic school superintendents of Texas and as Education Director of the Texas Catholic Conference Education Department. As you know, the 43 Catholic high schools in the State comprise almost 20 percent of your organization’s current member schools.”

The Texas Catholic Conference letter objected to the TAPPS refusal to admit Muslim schools, as well as Burleson’s defiance in the Beren Academy case. “The fact that it took filing a lawsuit,” McGettrick wrote, “and the relative ease with which the scheduling was solved strongly reinforces the concerns of the Texas Catholic Conference Education Department and the Catholic school superintendents with the structure, policy, and apparently insensitive attitude of TAPPS.” She added, “Our response to the Gospel requires us to respect others and live a true sense of fair play. These actions, simply put, are not acceptable to us as Catholic Christian institutions.” She ended with an explicit warning: “Failure to sufficiently improve the structure and management of TAPPS will require a re-examination of our 43 Catholic schools’ continued affiliation with TAPPS and instead seek other alternative options that are better aligned with our Catholic beliefs and convictions.”

The en masse exit of Catholic schools, the excision of Jewish and Seventh-day Adventists schools and the hardened rebuff to any affiliation with Muslim schools may be just what the inner core of TAPPS leadership desires. TAPPS itself does not even define Catholics and Christians in the same column. In its survey preparation package, the organization divides its 224 members by number into various columns. Those columns are Catholic, non-Catholic, Non-Church, and “Adventist/Jewish” which share a column distinguished by a devotion to Saturday as Sabbath. In truth, a smaller and entrenched affiliation of Sunday Sabbath worshiping athletes, to the exclusion of all others, can be clearly inferred as TAPPS leadership’s desire.

Ironically, the TAPPS position on Sunday-only Sabbath is being bitterly fought out of doctrinaire respect for the Christian observance. Yet, anyone who knows their religious history knows that Jesus Christ knew only one Sabbath. It began Friday at sundown and continued until sunset on Saturday.

Edwin Black is the author of IBM and the Holocaust and other books. He can be found





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