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Nazi Germany

Bel Powley stars as Miep Gies in 'A Small Light' now streaming on Hulu and Disney +

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

A limited series, “A Small Light,” now streaming on Hulu and on Disney+, tells of Miep Gies and her husband, Jan, the Dutch couple who risked their lives hiding the family of Otto Frank from the murderous Nazis during WWII. We know of them from his younger daughter, Anne Frank’s diary that she kept while in their “annex” above the Frank’s business in Amsterdam. This film marks what would have been Miep’s 114 birthday and relates the familiar story from a different perspective, that of Otto Frank’s courageous secretary and would-be savior.

While I have read “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and seen the play, I was riveted by an email I received from a friend, Steve North, who is both a broadcast journalist with CBS and a member by marriage of my extended family. He contacted me to urge that I watch the film, which I will as soon as I can figure out how to get onto Hulu. Meanwhile, I would like to reproduce an abridged version of what he wrote.

In the first half of 1929, two baby girls were born to Jewish families living in and near Frankfurt, Germany. One, sweet and dark-haired, had an older sister; the other, a smiling redhead, was an only child. As they turned 4 years old, the safe worlds their parents had created for them began to crumble. Hitler had come to power, and life for every German Jew was rife with danger. The dark-haired girl’s father decided to flee the country with his wife and children to Amsterdam. Some time later, the red-haired child’s parents made the same decision, eventually making their way to New York.

The dark-haired girl was Anne Frank, whose extraordinary diary, written in the years before her death at age 15 in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, has made her the single most recognizable victim of the Holocaust.

The red-haired girl is my mother, Brunhilde Bachenheimer, and when I climbed the narrow stairs to Anne Frank’s hiding place 35 years ago, I was overcome with the realization that my own family had so narrowly escaped a similar fate.

On a return trip to Amsterdam in 1998, I felt an intense need to connect with Anne’s life and story on a deeper level. I wrote a note to Miep Gies, who had become an employee and friend of Anne’s father, Otto, in 1933. Back then, Miep took an immediate liking to the vivacious and intelligent Anne, thinking, “This is the kind of child I’d like to have someday.”

In 1942, the brutal oppression of Dutch Jews by the Nazi occupiers of Holland escalated, with an increase in deportations. After Anne’s sister was ordered sent to Germany, Otto Frank approached his loyal bookkeeper and asked if she and her husband, Jan, would be willing to risk their lives by hiding the Franks and four other Jews. Miep’s immediate reply: “Of course.”

The rest of the overall story is well-known. Miep found and hid the diary until she could give it to Anne’s grieving father, the only survivor of the eight hidden Jews. Steve connected with Miep some 50 years after the war and, delighted to have met her, wrote his interview shortly before she died.  

While I have yet to see the drama, which has received excellent reviews, it surely poses the question to the viewers: What would you have done? 

French patriots line Avenue des Champs-Élysées as Free French forces reenter Paris in August 1944. Photo from the Library of Congress

By Rich Acritelli

“Make peace, you fools!” — Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt

These were the words of one of Hitler’s most capable field marshals once he determined the Allies would win World War II. 

The summer of 1944 was an extremely difficult phase of the war for Nazi Germany, marking the beginning of the end of the Third Reich. On June 6, 1944, D-Day, over 156,000 Allied soldiers stormed the beaches of Normandy, beginning their eastward assault through the European continent. 

Some 78 years ago, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was on the cusp of major victories against the once-vaunted German army. The German generals who in 1940 had conquered France watched their armies retreat from the Allied forces. Their only chance for victory required pushing the massive and growing Allied invasion force back into the English Channel, but overwhelming reinforcements continued to land ashore, and the Wehrmacht armed forces began their eastward retreat.

Despite the German army reeling from the establishment of an Allied bridgehead at Normandy, the loss of Carentan and the taking of the port of Cherbourg, the Nazis were still determined to fight. To slow down the Allied advance, the Germans used the brutal hedgerow terrain to limit the Allied movement and this strategy increased Allied casualties. Whereas the Germans halted Allied gains at this stage of the fighting in France, Eisenhower was determined that his forces’ gains should be swifter against the enemy.

Eisenhower decided that he must achieve a quick, dramatic conquest over Nazi-occupied territories. While toppling German strongholds was essential to the war effort, the Allies required a symbolic victory on French soil. For these military and political reasons, Eisenhower set his sights on the “City of Light.” By July of ‘44, American, British, Canadian and Free French forces were determined to liberate Paris.

En route to Paris

There was immense pressure on Eisenhower to take firm control of the ground war. Because of this, he opted to deploy the powerful but controversial Gen. George S. Patton and his Third Army. Patton was expected to push his army through the opening of the German lines, softening these defenses and exploiting any weaknesses. Beginning July 25, 1944, and over the course of two days, American bombers blew a massive hole within the lines of the German military. 

As the resistance weakened, German forces were gradually pushed back toward Paris. Then Patton, who waited several months to gain another command after the “slapping incidents” in Sicily, fought the enemy with an immense fury. Patton never seemed to be concerned about his own flanks, and it appeared that he constantly ordered his officers to stay on the offensive. The Third Army’s unstoppable forward movement helped to rapidly destroy any remaining German presence in Western France. 

By the first week of August, the Allies had emerged as the dominant force in Western Europe, which would hold true until the end of the war. As Patton pushed onward, the German high command realized that Paris would be the next target of the Allied invasion. Paris had always been the heart of France — culturally, politically and militarily. Four years earlier, French citizens openly wept at the sight of the German occupation of their beloved capital. Now they wept tears of joy at the sight of its liberation. 

On Aug. 25, the historic city of Paris was liberated from Nazi occupation. The freeing of the Parisians marked a sense of relief and optimism, pointing to a favorable outcome of the war. For once, the world began to see Nazi tyranny for what it was: temporary.

Hitler ordered the commander of his forces, Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz, to destroy this city and its historic landmarks. However, the German officer refused the orders and surrendered the city on Aug. 26. 

In one of the most moving scenes throughout the war, Gen. Charles de Gaulle led his French troops through the streets of Paris and down Avenue des Champs-Élysées. As American soldiers looked east, they were greeted with kisses from young ladies and grateful handshakes from Parisians who hoped for the day when German forces would be decisively driven from their city. 

The fall of Paris marked the start of a progression of major military setbacks that expedited the end of Hitler’s rule. In eight months’ time, he would be destroyed for good. This summer, we can reflect upon the sacrifices of American soldiers. During this time period in 1944, they freed the French people from Hitler’s tyrannical rule. 

Rich Acritelli is a history teacher at Rocky Point High School and adjunct professor at Suffolk County Community College.

Otto Heinrich Warburg

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

There are two good stories in “Ravenous: Otto Warburg, the Nazis, and the search for the Cancer-Diet Connection.” The newly released book, by Sam Apple, is about the Nazi’s hunt for the cause of cancer and the remarkable support Hitler gave, before and during World War II, to Otto Warburg, a premier scientist, homosexual and Jew.

Hitler’s mother, possibly the only person he loved, died a painful death from breast cancer. Hitler, reportedly a vegetarian and a hypochondriac, periodically thought he was dying of cancer. Otto Warburg, who won the Nobel Prize in 1931 and had been nominated repeatedly for the prize during his career, did in-depth biochemical research on the metabolism of tumors, especially cancer cells. Despite Warburg’s several obvious drawbacks and outspoken criticism of Nazi values — he refused to have Nazi flags in his lab or offer the Nazi salute — Hitler protected him and allowed him to do his work.

Otto Heinrich Warburg, born in 1883 into a prominent family of bankers and scientists, first distinguished himself in the elite cavalry regiment, the Uhlans, during WWI. He won the Iron Cross for bravery and was still fighting at the front in 1918 when Albert Einstein, a close friend of his physicist father, wrote him a letter urging him to come home. Einstein told him that science needed him. That, combined with his breakthrough research before the war on sea urchins, and his aristocratic family, did much to solidify his lifetime arrogance.

He did return home, continued his distinguished work, and was named director of a Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin founded by the Rockefeller Foundation, designed by him in the Rococo style, in 1931. He proceeded with his investigations into the causes of cancer, which had been relatively rare until the 19th century but was exploding in numbers in the early 20th century. The German people, along with people in the United States and elsewhere, were terrified of the disease.

Warburg’s hypothesis was that cancer growth was caused by tumor cells generating energy (to reproduce) mainly by the anaerobic (no oxygen) fermentation of glucose. Healthy cells, by contrast, generate energy mainly from oxidative breakdown with the salt pyruvate in the mitochondria (part of the cell responsible for producing the cell’s energy.)  If you don’t understand those last sentences, it doesn’t matter. The point is that Warburg believed the primary cause of cancer was the replacement of the respiration of oxygen in normal body cells with the fermentation of sugar. Therefore the culprit: SUGAR. 

Today the understanding of the cause of cancer is mutations in oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes that lead to a malignant transformation. The metabolic changes in cells that Warburg observed were not causative, today’s scientists believe, but the result of those mutations.

Warburg’s work offered support for the role of metabolism in the mitochondria in aiding tumor suppression. He oversimplified the complex interactions between the mitochondria and the cell nucleus, between metabolism and mutations.

After the war, Warburg did come to the United States, but his self-important personality, his tyrannical behavior in the lab, his imperiousness with his peers and finally his inability to admit error, all helped to push his research out of sight. He ultimately returned to Switzerland.

In the 1960s, scientific attention turned to the newly defined DNA and cancer-causing genes. Only with the new century has there been a metabolism revival and attention to the role of insulin and the link with obesity.

The book offers us interesting history, both about the Nazis and scientific research into the causes of cancer. Reading it will certainly make us think about what we eat.