A rediscovered Martin Luther King, Jr. speech

January 16, 2023 • 12:15 pm

Greg Mayer spotted this talk on my colleague Brian Leiter’s website, and I’m stealing it. Listening to it is a good way to remember King on this day, and to see the clarity and focus of his mission. It’s also  chance to appreciate his powerful rhetoric.

The 26-minute speech, rediscovered about eight years ago, was given in 1962, and is about two documents, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Declaration of Independence—and how they failed to bring clarity or resolution to America’s “race question.” King recounts how the Founding Fathers were well aware of their failure to bring equality to all Americans.

Here’s the story from NPR:

Last fall, curators and interns at the New York State Museum were digging through their audio archives in an effort to digitize their collection. It was tedious work; the museum houses over 15 million objects. But on this particular day in November, they unearthed a treasure.

As they sifted through box after box, museum director Mark Schaming remembers: “They pull up a little reel-to-reel tape and a piece of masking tape on it is labeled ‘Martin Luther King, Jr., Emancipation Proclamation Speech 1962.’ ”

It’s audio no one knew existed.

That year — 1962 — fell in the midst of the Civil War centennial. At one commemorative event, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller proposed a focus on the Emancipation Proclamation and invited King to speak. No one had heard his speech since. When Schaming listened to the audio, he found it still relevant. “It’s 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation is released, and this promise is still unfulfilled, very much as it is still today in many ways,” the museum director says.

At the end of the speech, King quotes a slave preacher who he says “didn’t quite have his grammar right but uttered words of great symbolic profundity.”

“Lord, we ain’t what we oughta be. We ain’t what we want to be. We ain’t what we gonna be. But, thank God, we ain’t what we was.”

The passage, Schaming says, is so powerful it must be heard to be appreciated. You can hear the speech at the New York State Museum‘s online exhibit.

The ending is eerily similar to that of the “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech—his final oration before he was murdered.

As you listen to King’s words, you can see the original typed speech go by—complete with King’s emendations, which markedly improve the text. Remember, this is two years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law.

It’s natural to wonder what King would say, were he still with us, about the racial divisions in America today, the hegemony of identity politics, and the rejection of his dream to have people judged not by their race, but by the content of their character.  Of course, it’s clear that King was expounding identity politics here and throughout his life, but in a way far more salubrious and less divisive than they’re used today.

There’s a loss of sound about 15 minutes in, but the talk quickly resumes.

Readers’ wildlife photos

December 12, 2022 • 8:15 am

Well, this doesn’t count as wildlife, but it does refer to the excretory habits of one species of primate. As contributor Athayde Tonhasca Júnior notes, ” I strongly suspect that this subject has not been approached before in your website. . . ” Indeed!  Apparently these are loo-related photos from his travels.Athayde’s notes are indented, and you can click on the photos to enlarge them.

A visit to the toilet (room), bathroom, restroom, washroom, or lavatory, is an opportunity for reflection and introspection, or to seek refuge, peace and quiet. Indeed, British men allegedly spend seven hours per year in the toilet hiding from their wives and children (according to “research” commissioned by a bathroom furniture company). But the loo – or bog, can, head, john, or latrine – can also be a place of amusement and learning.

A flamingo on duty to check your hand-washing technique in Bologna, Italy.

Unfortunately this educative and lyrical message was removed from a dentistry practice in Perth, UK:

A health warning in Scots, which is a language, a dialect or bad English, depending on who you ask (and their political views). The UK government and the European Union recognise Scots as a minority language, but many linguists place it somewhere on a dialect continuum. To the chagrin of nationalists, Scottish heavyweights Adam Smith and David Hume considered the use of Scots as an indication of poor education.

An emergency cord is great, but what if you want to order a pizza or dry your hair while bombing the bowl? (Hotel in Padua, Italy):

My travelling companion was displeased with the facilities in a Padua cafe. Squat toilets are terrible for the elderly or disabled, but they have a great advantage: you don’t need to touch anything. You learn to appreciate them when you hear the call of nature in the back of beyond. They are also better for your health, supposedly:

A latrine in the Housesteads Roman Fort, Britain, on the northernmost edge of the Roman Empire. Year 200 AC:

Marcus: Salve, Quintus.
Quintus: Ave, Marcus. Are you well? You look a bit green around the gills.
Marcus: Tell me about it. I think that batch of garum from Rome was off.
Quintus: I hear you.
Cornelius: I hear you too, Marcus. Loud and clear! Ha-ha! Say, chaps, wouldn’t you have a spare sponge on you?

A tersorium (a sea sponge on a stick) supposedly used by the Romans to wipe themselves after using the latrine. The sponge may have been washed in a gutter with running water, or in a bucket of water, salt and vinegar. But not everyone agrees with this popular tale (kids love it). According to Gilbert Wiplinger (Austrian Archaeological Institute), the tersorium may have been nothing more than a toilet brush. Read his gripping account in the Proceedings of the International Frontinus-Symposium on the Technical and Cultural History of Ancient Baths, Aachen, Germany, 2009.

Sign in a loo in an antechamber of Perth’s Sheriff Court House. One must be at rock bottom to shoot up before facing a sheriff (a Scottish judge with powers to fine or lock you up for up to five years). For the last seven years, Scotland has maintained the unenviable first place in Europe for drug-related deaths; drugs in Scotland have a death rate almost four times the rate in the UK as a whole. These figures – together with failing education, economy and health indicators – are secondary for people in power. The one-track-mind Scottish National Party cares for little else besides breaking up the union:

Epiphany inside a loo in Perth, UK:

The facilities in the family home (today a museum) of Brazilian painter Cândido Portinari (1903-1962) in the town of Brodowski, São Paulo State, illustrate a time when homes were not cluttered with stuff and had plenty of space to spare:

Collector, philanthropist and extremely rich Ema Klabin (1907–1994) needed the loo to store some of her many priceless pieces of art. Her house in São Paulo is a museum (Fundação Cultural Ema Gordon Klabin) well worth visiting. Entrance is free:

A replica of a once common warning to men in public urinals, hotels and railroad stations in the UK. Not doing-up all the buttons of your trousers (no zippers then) was a grave indiscretion:

That’s not nice. At all:

Able young non-pregnant adults can use the loo in the petrol station across the road:

In a cafe in the Brazilian coastal city of Ubatuba, you are not allowed to flush yourself. Presumably to prevent polluting the sea:

“Use the toilet as you have committed a crime: don’t leave clues behind” (loo in a São Paulo bookshop):

New documentary by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein, “The U.S. and the Holocaust”, starts this evening

September 18, 2022 • 12:45 pm

It’s well known that the U.S. government didn’t care all that much about the Holocaust as it was happening in Europe, even though information about it was available. Nor did they make much effort to take in Jews or, especially, to rescue beleaguered Jews in Europe.  Ken Burns and Sarah Botstein are now about to present a six-hour, three-part series called “The U.S. and the Holocaust”, part of which explains this neglect.

The show starts this evening, so do watch it. (Check your local PBS schedule.) Here’s the one-minute trailer:

Somehow i have to find a way to see it (my crummy t.v. doesn’t receive PBS).

Below is a 26-minute “Firing Line” interview featuring Burns and Botstein.  You can hear it for free by clicking the screenshots:

 

Here are Burns and his other collaborator, Lynn Novick, on the Today show.

The New Yorker has a summary and review of the series, and its assessment is somewhat tepid. Why? Because Burns et al. didn’t make the film the New Yorker thought it should. What did they want? More about contemporary issues, something that Burns addresses in his comments above.

Here’s a bit of McAuley’s critique:

But if contemporary America is of interest, there is an important institutional story to tell here as well, about the U.S. government’s ultimate embrace of Holocaust history beginning in the late nineteen-seventies, when a commission established by President Jimmy Carter proposed the creation of a national Holocaust museum. And also a strange story about a civil society in which a very particular tragedy became universalized and mass-marketed, leading people who may have little or no connection to Jewish life to feel entitled to make a Jewish catastrophe about themselves. Examining the evolution of that uniquely American obsession might have strengthened the film in its final installment. After all, America is still responding to the Holocaust, and often in troubling ways.

The persecution and mass murder of European Jews between 1933 and 1945 loom so large in our culture that even our own homegrown brownshirts now have the Holocaust on the tips of their tongues. In recent years, a sitting member of Congress, Marjorie Taylor Greene, has styled her enemies as “Nazis” and posted a video of a fake-looking President Biden with a Hitler mustache. Beyond the arena of electoral politics, a number of ordinary people wore yellow stars on their lapels to protest coronavirus-vaccine requirements. Given its interest in the contemporary, “The U.S. and the Holocaust” might have confronted, or at least acknowledged, these fixations and distortions. They, too, turn out to be as American as apple pie.

There wasn’t enough about contemporary white supremacy and the Republicans, I guess. Well, I haven’t seen the show yet, an will find a way to do so. But what does the magazine mean by this?

. . . .a civil society in which a very particular tragedy became universalized and mass-marketed, leading people who may have little or no connection to Jewish life to feel entitled to make a Jewish catastrophe about themselves.

Is the answer in something that McAuley wrote earlier in the article?

The destruction of the European Jews, in Eleanor Roosevelt’s telling, was not really about the Jews: it was a parable for right and wrong, a “teachable moment” about perseverance in the face of adversity—could there be anything more hopelessly and terminally American than that? As Roosevelt wrote, Anne’s diary was among “the wisest and most moving commentaries on war and its impact on human beings that I have ever read. . . . Despite the horror and humiliation of their daily lives, these people never gave up.” Anne, she concluded, “tells us much about ourselves and our own children.” Not once did Eleanor Roosevelt use the word “Jew”; the story of “these people” was not the point. By then, the Jewish catastrophe was everyone’s to claim, and the “lessons” of the Holocaust were already in the process of becoming a strangely American form of national self-help.

Typical New Yorker prose: a grandiose and eloquent conclusion that doesn’t seem to hold water.  An American form of self-help? How?

Two articles on the Queen: one lionizing her and the other attacking her

September 10, 2022 • 12:45 pm

Because Queen Elizabeth was more or less a cipher, her death has led to people projecting all manner of their own feelings onto her, seeing her ranging from a kind, diligent, and dedicated person to a  representative of an outdated and bloody colonialist regime, as well as of a monarchy past its time. This post will give you one example of each pole. I have no d*g in this fight, so I tend to see the Queen as a decent and hardworking person, but the monarchy as an institution whose time has come and gone.

Reaction to the death of Elizabeth II was at first wholly worshipful, but a backlash is beginning—largely in the U.S. I’ll talk about that in a bit, but first let’s hear the positive assessment of Elizabeth by one of her former “subjects,” Andrew Sullivan. Her legacy is the main object of his column yesterday (click to read, but subscribe if you read frequently).

As a conservative and an ex-Brit, one might expect Sullivan to admire the Queen, and indeed he does.  But he mainly admires her for hanging in there, for choosing a life that is not a human life, because she knew that her lot would be the abandonment of freedom for duty.  I have to say, Sully does say that well:

[When Biden was elected], I found myself watching the life of an entirely different head of state: a young, somewhat shy woman suddenly elevated to immense responsibilities and duties in her twenties, hemmed in by protocol, rigidified by discipline. The new president could barely get through the day without some provocation, insult, threat or lie. Elizabeth Windsor was tasked as a twenty-something with a job that required her to say or do nothing that could be misconstrued, controversial, or even interestingly human — for the rest of her life.

The immense difficulty of this is proven by the failure of almost every other member of her family — including her husband — to pull it off. We know her son King Charles III’s views on a host of different subjects, many admirable, some cringe-inducing. We know so much of the psychological struggles of Diana; the reactionary outbursts of Philip; the trauma of Harry; the depravity of Andrew; the agonies of Margaret. We still know nothing like that about the Queen. Because whatever else her life was about, it was not about her.

Part of the hard-to-explain grief I feel today is related to how staggeringly rare that level of self-restraint is today. Narcissism is everywhere. Every feeling we have is bound to be expressed. Self-revelation, transparency, authenticity — these are our values. The idea that we are firstly humans with duties to others that will require and demand the suppression of our own needs and feelings seems archaic. Elizabeth kept it alive simply by example.

Yes, she is to be admired for that self-restraint, though I don’t think it would have sullied her image to do a few more Paddington Bear skits. But, I suppose, Sullivan does come close to the reason for the outburst of grief in Britain at the Queen’s death:

Elizabeth never rode those tides of acclaim or celebrity. She never pressed the easy buttons of conventional popularity. She didn’t even become known for her caustic wit like the Queen Mother, or her compulsively social sorties like Margaret. The gays of Britain could turn both of these queens into camp divas. But not her. In private as in public, she had the kind of integrity no one can mock successfully.

You can make all sorts of solid arguments against a constitutional monarchy — but the point of monarchy is precisely that it is not the fruit of an argument. It is emphatically not an Enlightenment institution. It’s a primordial institution smuggled into a democratic system. It has nothing to do with merit and logic and everything to do with authority and mystery — two deeply human needs our modern world has trouble satisfying without danger.

The Crown satisfies those needs, which keeps other more malign alternatives at bay.

Well, one could disagree that countries need royalty to keep them stable. Although I’ve heard it argued that America could use a “head of state” for ceremonial purposes, alongside the President for governance, I think we’ve done pretty well (excepting for one four-year period); and many countries thrive without royalty.  I, for one, don’t crave authority and mystery.  Could Sullivan’s emphasis on those qualities have something to do with his Catholicism, which teems with both?

But in contrast to the article below, Sullivan does explain the Elizabeth-worship that so puzzles Americans:

 But it matters that divisive figures such as Boris Johnson or Margaret Thatcher were never required or expected to represent the entire nation. It matters that in times of profound acrimony, something unites. It matters that in a pandemic when the country was shut down, the Queen too followed the rules, even at her husband’s funeral, and was able to refer to a phrase — “we’ll meet again” — that instantly reconjured the days of the Blitz, when she and the royal family stayed in London even as Hitler’s bombs fell from the sky.

Every Brit has a memory like this. She was part of every family’s consciousness, woven into the stories of our lives, representing a continuity and stability over decades of massive change and dislocation. No American will ever experience that kind of comfort, that very human form of patriotism across the decades in one’s own life and then the centuries before. When I grew up studying the Normans and the Plantagenets and the Tudors, they were not just artifacts of the distant past, but deeply linked to the present by the monarchy’s persistence and the nation’s thousand-year survival as a sovereign state — something no other European country can claim.

She was there, she didn’t screw up, she was one fixed point in a changing world, and she was the latest instantiation of a hereditary monarchy.  The first three points I can understand, the last I can’t. I’d prefer a country that didn’t have a lineage set apart (and considered superior to) all others. The United State is only about 250 years old, but would having a king ensure our persistence? Would a king have prevented Trump from nearly subverting the Republic? I don’t think so.

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I was told that the NYT article below was “pretty good,” but when I read it I discovered a hit job on Queen Elizabeth from a woke-ish perspective.  In other words, though I wasn’t a huge fan of the Queen or the monarchy, I see this article as fundamentally unfair. For it pins on Queen Elizabeth all the horrible crimes and tragedies that went with the creation of the British Empire, even though she had nothing to do with those things. She may have embodied that history as a ruler, but she was a virtually powerless figurehead who had nothing to do with the stuff. Nevertheless, Jasanoff finds a way to pin it on her: colonialism, racism, paternalism—the whole schmear.  Click to read:

 

Jasanoff begins with the obligatory bow to Elizabeth’s fortitude and commitment, but quickly begins tarring her with the crimes of Empire formation:

Tell me if this is not an undeserved slur:

The queen embodied a profound, sincere commitment to her duties — her final public act was to appoint her 15th prime minister — and for her unflagging performance of them, she will be rightly mourned. She has been a fixture of stability, and her death in already turbulent times will send ripples of sadness around the world. But we should not romanticize her era. For the queen was also an image: the face of a nation that, during the course of her reign, witnessed the dissolution of nearly the entire British Empire into some 50 independent states and significantly reduced global influence. By design as much as by the accident of her long life, her presence as head of state and head of the Commonwealth, an association of Britain and its former colonies, put a stolid traditionalist front over decades of violent upheaval. As such, the queen helped obscure a bloody history of decolonization whose proportions and legacies have yet to be adequately acknowledged.

Seriously? The queen obscured a bloody history? Was it her job to stand up and pronounce about that? Did she deliberately obscure the bad aspects of British colonial history. No, because that’s not her brief. She did not favor or perpetuate or obscure any bloody history; all she did (which Jasanoff emphasizes) is make occasional visits to the “colonies” and have her picture taken with “mostly nonwhite” people in those places.

Here’s more:

In photographs from Commonwealth leaders’ conferences, the white queen sits front and center among dozens of mostly nonwhite premiers, like a matriarch flanked by her offspring. She took her role very seriously, sometimes even clashing with her ministers to support Commonwealth interests over narrower political imperatives, as when she advocated multifaith Commonwealth Day services in the 1960s and encouraged a tougher line on apartheid South Africa.

Note that the queen was against apartheid. But. . . but. . .

What you would never know from the pictures — which is partly their point — is the violence that lies behind them.

. . . for which the Queen bears no blame. Jasanoff brings up British violence in Malaya, Ireland (not that the IRA had anything to do with that), and especially in Kenya, where the British engaged in mass slaughter to subdue the populace (read this piece: “The colonization of Kenya” to hear about British malfeasance in all its horror.)  I could add India to Elizabeth’s crimes. Was the Queen to blame for the Jallianwalah Bagh Massacre, or the deaths of millions following the partition in 1947?  She wasn’t even Queen during these times.

Perhaps Elizabeth knew all the bloody details, but knowing is not perpetrating or approving. Yet look at this sly dig: she might have known!

We may never learn what the queen did or didn’t know about the crimes committed in her name. (What transpires in the sovereign’s weekly meetings with the prime minister remains a black box at the center of the British state.) Her subjects haven’t necessarily gotten the full story, either. Colonial officials destroyed many records that, according to a dispatch from the secretary of state for the colonies, “might embarrass Her Majesty’s government” and deliberately concealed others in a secret archive whose existence was revealed only in 2011.

This is perilously close to the “have you stopped beating your wife?” accusation.  Jasanoff keeps mixing up Elizabeth with the bad actions of others, like the previous Prime Minister, tarring her with the sins not just of her contemporaries, but also of the sins of the past. She is even faulted for “her white face”! Jasanoff just can’t stop mixing up the sins of the Empire with the character of the Queen:

Yet xenophobia and racism have been rising, fueled by the toxic politics of Brexit. Picking up on a longstanding investment in the Commonwealth among Euroskeptics (both left and right) as a British-led alternative to European integration, Mr. Johnson’s government (with Liz Truss, now the prime minister, as its foreign secretary) leaned into a vision of “Global Britain” steeped in half-truths and imperial nostalgia.

The queen’s very longevity made it easier for outdated fantasies of a second Elizabethan age to persist. She represented a living link to World War II and a patriotic myth that Britain alone saved the world from fascism. She had a personal relationship with Winston Churchill, the first of her 15 prime ministers, whom Mr. Johnson pugnaciously defended against well-founded criticism of his retrograde imperialism. And she was, of course, a white face on all the coins, notes and stamps circulated in a rapidly diversifying nation: From perhaps one person of color in 200 Britons at her accession, the 2011 census counted one in seven.

The second paragraph faults her for having a “personal relationship” with Churchill, for being somehow associated with Boris Johnson’s defense of Churchill, and of course for having a “white face” that’s on all the currency and stamps. I suppose that visage on money and postage harms people. At long last, Dr. Jasanoff, have you no sense of decency?

At the end, Jasanoff calls for an end to the imperial monarchy. I agree. I oppose any hereditary aristocracy, and it’s time to at least ratchet back on the pomp and circumstance. But for Jasanoff, Elizabeth is a screen on which the sweating Harvard Professor projects all her hatred of colonialism and the bad things the British did to secure their empire. And I agree with that assessment of colonialism as well. But I do not agree that Elizabeth, by merely existing, somehow legitimizes the racism and xenophobia of British history.

Matthew tells me that this kind of criticism of Elizabeth is far stronger in America than in Britain. That, of course, is because she was the British Queen, but also because Americans are more Pecksniffian and woke than Brits.  Perhaps it is time for a reckoning of the “British Empire’s violent atrocities,” as the Guardian piece below reports. In that way the Queen is like George Floyd, as the deaths of both of them have unleashed huge amounts of resentment and calls to reassess the past.

When Matthew sent me these tweets about what was going on in the UK, and I read some of the vicious criticism of Jasanoff’s piece by readers commenting on her article, I thought, “Wait, this is surely an overreaction.” Now I’m not so sure. Here are some tweets:

Eizabeth’s death unleashes anger at both her and British history:

h/t: Matthew

New paper claims to have discovered 17 English Jews killed in 12th-century anti-Semitic attack

September 4, 2022 • 9:20 am

After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, William the Conqueror invited Jews into England. Settling in places like Norwich, York, and Lincoln, they were presumably Ashkenazi Jews, who originated in Europe and the Middle East (my DNA tells me that I’m one of them.)  Their professions were, as a Smithsonian article (second below) recounts, mainly “financiers and moneylenders,” professions that were forbidden for Christians.

But although they were invited in, they weren’t loved, and were ultimately expelled from England in 1290. (Nobody likes the Jews!). History recounts that, around 1190, only 133 years after the Conquest, a group of Jews were killed by Christians who thought they’d do in a bunch of Ashkenazis on their way to the Third Crusade.

Or so the paper below, from a recent issue of Current Biology, tells us. It recounts a genetic analysis of 6 of 17 skeletons—11 adults and 6 children—found in 2004 in a well in Norwich near the location of the city’s ancient Jewish quarter.  This was 18 years ago, and you can see video and photos of mass grave in the “cold case” video below.

The genetic analysis of 6 of these individuals suggests that the skeletons were a group of Ashkenazis, probably ones killed in the 1190 massacre. Click on the screenshot below to go to the Current Biology piece (free access). You can download the pdf here, and I give the reference at the bottom.

First, here’s what was found (photo and caption from 9News.  (You can see a lot more in the video at bottom.)

At least 17 human bodies found at the bottom of a medieval well in Norwich were a group of Ashkenazi Jews who may have been victims of anti-Semitic violence during the 12th century. (NPS Archaeology/BBC)

After the remains were excavated, sorted, and sexed, they found 17 bodies, with 11 adults (a mixture of men and women) and 6 children. The bones were radiocarbon dated to between 1161 and 1216 (95% confidence interval), putting the burial right at the time the Jews of Norwich were killed.

Although a few of the bones were broken, that was from being tossed into the well (head first), which cracked some ribs and vertebrae. As for what killed the individuals, there’s no indication of that: no fractures or indications of blows. They were almost surely killed before being tossed into an empty well, perhaps by stabbing or cutting, or perhaps by smoke inhalation if their houses were burned.

Six of the individuals had DNA extracted from the bones for genetic analysis. The authors didn’t do complete genome sequencing, but did enough to determine that three of them, ranging from 10 years old to young adults, were full siblings—sisters. (You can tell the sex from both the bones and the DNA itself.) These three had identical mitochondrial DNA, showing that they came from the same mother. Another individual was more distantly related to these.

We are also at the stage where we can determine with near certainty the hair and eye color of individuals from DNA, for we know which genes are involved in those traits. As the paper notes,

Two individuals were inferred to have had brown eyes, one with “dark” and one with “light” hair (SB605 and SB676, respectively), while the 0- to 3-year-old boy (SB604) was inferred to have had blue eyes and red hair, the latter of which is associated with historical stereotypes of European Jews.

I wasn’t aware that this is a historical stereotype of European Jews; I would have thought that most of them, like me, had dark hair and eyes, but what do I know from historical stereotypes? And of course two of the three were dark, so what we see is variation, not really a confirmation that these were Ashkenazi Jews. The evidence for that comes from genetic data. First, here’s a reconstruction of the faces of two individuals—a young one and an older one—from both DNA and skulls. These are of course very rough, and don’t tell us much. (I wonder, now that 23andMe has a huge sample of my own genetic data, if they could estimate what I look like from my DNA alone. They already guessed correctly that I have dark hair and eyes.)

The genetic evidence for who these individuals were rests on comparing their DNA with several modern populations from Western Eurasia, as well as looking for sequences of genes that cause disease in modern Ashkenazi Jews. (As an inbred group that probably went through a severe reduction in population size, as well as having substantial intermarriage—”endogamy”—living Ashkenazi Jews have a high frequency of genetic disorders, the most famous being Tay-Sachs disease.

You can see below a plot of where the six individuals whose DNA was analyzed (the black dots) fall in a cluster study—made from what’s known as a principal-components analysis—of the various modern populations. analyzed. Data from living Brits are in the small purple cluster at about 9 o’clock, far away from the Norwich individuals, who fall closer to Southern European and Middle Eastern populations, including modern Ashkenazi Jews, Turkish Jews, and North African Jews. As the authors conclude:

We projected the six Chapelfield genomes on a PCA defined by variation among modern western Eurasian population samples, including modern Jewish individuals. All six Chapelfield [Norwich] individuals project well away from present-day British samples, as well as northern Europeans more generally. Instead, they partially overlap with Southern Europeans, close to Cypriots, modern Ashkenazi, Turkish, and North African Jews. These results are consistent with the Chapelfield individuals having Jewish ancestry (cf. Kopelman et al.)

Click to enlarge:

There’s one more line of evidence that the individuals in the well were Ashkenazim. This is the observation that the six individuals analyzed had a much higher similarity of DNA sequence at the “disease genes” to modern Ashkenazis than to other populations. As the authors note:

To explore this further, we formulated a likelihood function to calculate the exact probability of the six individuals’ observed allele reads at the 159 disease loci, given the allele frequencies of any proposed population.

. . . The maximum likelihood read error rate estimates are notably similar (0.87% and 0.94%, respectively), and crucially these results show that the data are 4,615 times more probable under a model that these individuals were sampled from the modern Ashkenazi population than they were sampled from the modern non-Finnish European population. This approach assumes the six individuals are randomly sampled from either population. Further assessment of the effect of this assumption given that three individuals are siblings suggests that in the case of these data our assumption has a conservative effect on the likelihood ratio

This is scientific jargon saying that, in the end, there’s a much higher likelihood that these genes came from Ashkenazim (modern ones) than from modern European populations. (I’m not sure why they exclude Finns, save that Finns have a high proportion of genes from ancient Siberia.)  The high frequency of alleles that, when homozygous (two copies needed), cause genetic disease, suggest that any “bottleneck” in population size of the Ashkenazi must have occurred before these individuals were killed. That’s several centuries earlier than historians have suggested.

The best guess, then, is that the 17 individuals were Ashkenazi Jews killed by Crusaders who wanted to do in a few Semites on their way to doing in some Muslims in Constantinople. But not every scientist agrees. The Smithsonian piece quotes a dissenter:

Speaking with NatureEran Elhaik, a population, medical and evolutionary geneticist at Lund University in Sweden, casts doubt on the DNA analysis, arguing that the team identified the individuals as Ashkenazi Jews “because that was the only population that they considered.” In response, co-author Ian Barnes, an evolutionary geneticist at the Natural History Museum, tells Nature that local archaeologists and historians know of few other “plausible alternatives” in terms of “other groups that might [have been] in medieval Norwich at the time.”

Given that the paper compared the skeletons in the well with modern populations, most of which were not Jewish, I’m not sure what Dr. Elhaik is on about, but he has published a paper claiming that principal-components analysis is faulty and can be biased to get the results you want. That said, the confluence of the historical and genetic data, and the lack of any other plausible explanation for this slaughter (plus the spot-on estimates from carbon dating to the same period where Jews were being killed in the area), convinces me that the authors are probably right.

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Here is an hourlong “Cold Case” video from 2018 about the finding of the bodies, made before any genetic work was done. I haven’t watched the whole thing straight through, but you can see the discovery of the skeletons, other forensic estimation, and people’s best guess at the time what the mass grave told us: 

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Brace, S. et al. 2022. Genomes from a medieval mass burial show Ashkenazi-associated hereditary diseases pre-date the 12th century. Curr. Biol. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2022.08.036

Readers’ wildlife photos

July 27, 2022 • 8:00 am

Today is the second part of Athayde Tonhasca Júnior’s visual/historical account of his trip to Crete in June. (Part 1 is here.) His notes are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.

Fig. 13. George Psychoundakis, a member of the Greek resistance to German occupation during WWII (and a messenger), once ran 45 km from the northwestern coast of Crete to the southwestern coast in one night. The distance was nothing compared to Crete’s terrain, which explains why Cretans used to measure journeys by time on foot or on a donkey instead of distance travelled (The Cretan Runner).

Fig. 14. Religion would be more appealing with better imagery. No robed, bearded old men for the Minoans; they had the Snake Goddess, with much to ogle at – yes: the snakes, the fiery eyes, the cat-like figure on the lady’s hat. There’s been endless speculation about the symbolism of this statuette from Knossos Temple, dated 1650-1550 BC and housed in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum (HAM). You can buy replicas of the finest Chinese mass-produced quality in Chania’s tat market. Also mugs, t-shirts and plates depicting the goddess. It must be the snakes. Or the eyes.

Fig 15. Ex-voto room in Bonfim Church (© Sailko, Wikimedia Commons). Visitors to the historical Bonfim church in Salvador, Brazil, may leave a bit unsettled after visiting the room, which is crammed with tokens left by people asking or giving thanks for miracles such as surviving illness, return of loved ones, exams or business success. These tokens don’t beat around the bushes: there are photos before and after tumour removals, deformed wax hands depicting exactly where a snake bit, crutches, wooden legs, plaster kidneys, you name it.

Fig 16. Many consider the ex-voto practice a Catholic thing, but Christians probably took it from the Romans, who in turn copied it from the Greeks. These models of human limbs from 1900-1700 BC probably are votive offerings from worshippers requesting healing (from the At the Herakleon Archeological Museum):

Fig. 17. One could get necklaces like these from a local jeweller. But these pieces made with semi-precious stones (agate, jasper, amethyst, rock crystal and carnelian) are from 3000-2000 BC (HAM). Fashion can be timeless.

Fig. 18. My pizza stone is not much different from this cooking tray from 2000-1900 BC (HAM). Sometimes you can’t improve technology.

Fig. 19. A 1600-1450 BC bronze figurine of a worshipper (HAM). The arched back and bent elbows are thought to represent the spiritual tension during communication with the deity. The hand to the forehead manifests prayer or invocation. Arthur Evans (1851-1941), the British archaeologist famous for excavating the palace of Knossos, was also notorious for offering historical explanations based on the flimsiest of evidence, or none at all. So let me have an Evans moment: could these worshipper figurines (there are many) be a clue to the source of the military salute, which has no confirmed origin?

Fig. 20. Shrines such as this one are found all over Greece: bus stops, people’ gardens, parking lots, and by the roadside. This kandilakia (kαντηλάκια) could be a gesture of thankfulness, celebration of miracles, or a dedication to a patron saint. Some are quite elaborate, with hinged doors and windows: they look like miniature churches. Inside there could be a burning oil lamp, images of saints, plastic flowers or personal offerings.

Fig. 21. Some simple shrines by the roadside are erected in memory of those killed in road accidents. They come one after another for 145 km on the road from Heraklion to Chania, along the northern coast of Crete. Which tells you a lot about Greek drivers. For a cheap thrill, sit by the window in a Greek bus and watch vehicles overtake. It would make an Italian driver cringe.

Fig. 22. During our hike to the German cemetery, we stopped for breakfast at a small cafe, looking for yogurt. We were told there wasn’t any on the menu, just coffee and pastries. A couple of minutes later the waitress came to our table to know whether we still wanted yogurt – they could get some. We hesitantly said yes, expecting an industrialised dollop rescued from the bottom of the fridge. But we were in Greece: we were served a thick cream of exquisite flavour, topped with Cretan honey (a treat in itself) and freshly crushed nuts. Now “Greek yogurt” at home deserves nothing but contempt.

Fig. 23. Greece is a haven for word geeks. Once you learn to transliterate Greek, all sorts of connections materialise. This kentra (centre) of xenon (foreign) glosson (languages) conjures central, xenon gas (Xe), xenophobia, glossary; in the lower image, the mono (only) giali (glass) bin offers links to monogamy, monotony, monography and all mono- words; and to hyaline, as in “through the clear hyaline the ship came sailing”, or a glassy and translucent cartilage.

Fig. 24. Optica, fotografia, ortopedica: the poor Greeks had to copy words from us to communicate.

 

Happy Birthday, Rosalind Franklin!

July 25, 2022 • 10:45 am

Note by Jerry: Today would be Rosalind Franklin’s 102nd birthday, and I remembered this excellent assessment of her life and career written for the site by Matthew Cobb exactly two years ago—on Franklin’s 100th birthday. There will be more about Franklin in the book that Matthew’s writing now (a biography of Francis Crick), but I’ll republish this and ask Matthew to correct any mistakes or add anything he wants. It’s good to refresh ourselves about Franklin’s achievements (far more than taking X-rays of DNA), and she does seem to be an object of perennial discussion.

**************

 

by Matthew Cobb

Franklin on holiday in Tuscany, 1950.

The chemist and X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin was born 100 years ago today. Although she was never in the public eye in her lifetime, in the last quarter century she has become a figure of renown, with her name attached to a university, a medical school, several buildings and student dorms, lecture theatres, as well as various prestigious medals and fellowships and – most recently – a future Mars Rover and a commemorative UK coin. She died in London, of ovarian cancer, on 16 April 1958.

Franklin’s gravestone, in the Jewish cemetery in Willesden, north London, concludes: ‘Her research and discoveries on viruses remain of lasting benefit to mankind’.

Franklin’s work on RNA viruses, carried out from 1953-58 at Birkbeck College, London – first the tobacco mosaic virus, then, briefly, on the polio virus – was of such significance that her PhD student, Aaron Klug, won the 1982 Nobel Prize for this research. Had she lived, she would have had a good case for winning two Nobel Prizes, one for the virus work, and the other for her contribution to the resolution of the double helix structure of DNA, which she made in 1951 and 1952 at King’s College London.

By any standards, therefore, Franklin was a remarkable scientist whose skill and insights created a great legacy of work. As her Nature obituary put it:

The news of the death of Rosalind Franklin on April 16 came as a shock to many workers in the field of biochemistry and virus studies. It is a special tragedy when a brilliant research worker is cut off at the height of her powers and when exciting new discoveries are expected from her.

She was of international renown, collaborating with leading researchers at Berkeley, Tubingen and Yale. Those scientists valued her because, according to the Nature obituary, her work:

was distinguished by extreme clarity and perfection in everything she undertook. Her photographs are among the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken. Their excellence was the fruit of extreme care in preparation and mounting of the specimens as well as in the taking of the photographs. She did nearly all this work with her own hands. At the same time, she proved to be an admirable director of a research team and inspired those who worked with her to reach the same high standard.

It is striking that few of the commemorations you will see today will present this side of her work.* Instead, they will be focused on her contribution to the most significant biological discovery of the 20th century, the structure of DNA, and in particular the suggestion that James Watson stole a key part of her research—an X-ray photograph taken in 1952—known as photograph 51.

There are two problems with this – firstly, her contribution to science was so much more than ‘simply’ contributing to the structure of DNA, and secondly, in highlighting the supposed role of a single image, we are inadvertently doing her a great injustice.

Most people came to hear about Franklin through Jim Watson’s racy, novelised account of the discovery of the structure of DNA, The Double Helix, which came out in 1968. Written with a verve that contrasts with the plodding prose of his other biographical writings, The Double Helix describes how Maurice Wilkins at King’s showed Watson the famous photograph 51 and, in a flash, Watson realised its significance for the structure of DNA.

This moment, so vivid in the book, is the starting point for the modern emphasis on photograph 51 and on Franklin’s status as a wronged woman (this view is amply justified by Watson’s unsettlingly frank description of his scornful, sexist, contemporary views of Franklin in his book).

In reality, photograph 51 played a key role only in convincing Watson that DNA had a helical structure (that is all that a glance could tell you), which is something that Wilkins had long been convinced of and had been repeatedly argued in discussions in King’s. And in providing a dramatic, Watson-centred hook to the account in the book.

Franklin’s decisive and unwitting contribution to Watson and Crick’s discovery was not a single photo. Indeed, she did not even take photograph 51; it was taken by her PhD student, Raymond Gosling, who had initially been a student of Wilkins. By the end of 1952, Gosling was again supervised by Wilkins, which is why Wilkins had the photo and had every right to show it to Watson. Whether that was wise is another matter.

Instead it was something much more significant: a set of values, established by Franklin on the basis of her detailed studies of these photos, and which were contained in a report by the King’s lab to the Medical Research Council, which provided Watson and above all Crick with the key. This report, including Franklin’s data, was handed to Watson and Crick by members of the Cambridge lab where they worked at the end of 1952.

Franklin was not consulted, but the data were not secret, or private. Indeed, she had presented similar data 15 months earlier at a talk Watson attended, but he did not take notes, and by his own account spent his time musing about her dress sense. But the Cambridge crew could and should have asked her, and were wrong not to. Given her previous (and understandable) complaint to members of Wilkins’ group that they should not interpret her data for her, it is perhaps no surprise that she wasn’t asked – it seems very likely her answer would have been ‘no’.

Once Crick saw the data, he understood their significance in a way that Franklin initially did not do – he had been working on the way that helical molecules diffracted X-rays, so his mind was prepared to understand them in an instant. That encounter of a prepared mind with Franklin’s values, not Watson glancing at photograph 51, was the decisive moment.

By early March 1953, Watson and Crick had come up with the detailed double helix structure, and invited Franklin and Wilkins to come and see it. The King’s duo immediately accepted it as correct – in a way it just had to be true, it was so beautiful. The structure was published in Nature shortly thereafter, as a set of three articles, the other two being from Franklin (including photograph 51) and from Wilkins – they provided the empirical justification (but not proof) for Watson and Crick’s theoretical model.

In a piece of understatement, the Watson and Crick paper acknowledged that ‘We have also been stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished experimental results and ideas of Dr M. H. F. Wilkins, Dr. R. E. Franklin and their co-workers’.

A significant element in the discovery of the double helix was the magic of Watson and Crick’s interaction. It is striking that, unlike them, Franklin did not have anyone she could talk to and argue with about her work, and in particular did not get on with Wilkins (I imagined what might have happened if they had been able to work together in a previous post).

And yet, as she was finishing up at King’s, getting ready to move to Birkbeck, she continued, all on her own, to analyse her data. Her lab books reveal her astonishing solitary progress. By 24 February, using Crick’s method published the year before, she had realised that DNA was a double helix, that the bases on either strand were complementary and interchangeable (A with T, C with G), and above all she realised that, as she put it ‘an infinite variety of nucleotide sequences would be possible to explain the biological specificity of DNA’.

In that final, key respect, she was ahead of Watson and Crick’s first explicit statement of this fundamental aspect of DNA structure, which would not be made for another 3 months (the first Watson and Crick paper had very little on function, referring merely to replication).

Making key contributions to the structure of two important viruses, single-handedly approaching the double helix structure of DNA, those are remarkable contributions by a woman scientist at a time when women were relatively rare in the global scientific community. It is just slightly frustrating that her contribution is ‘reduced’ to DNA, and her role in that discovery is framed in the way Watson self-servingly portrayed it.

But, I suppose, it’s better that Franklin is remembered in a distorted, albeit positive way, than solely through Watson’s portrayal in The Double Helix. The simplicity of the story of ‘she took a photo, Watson stole it, she was robbed’ has an undoubted power, even if it isn’t strictly true. It can be a way for young people to come to grips with the science and the history of science, undoubtedly driven by understandable irritation at Watson’s views, both in his account, and subsequently. For example, it is hard to be grumpy about this rap battle between Franklin and Watson and Crick, written and performed by 7th graders. The historical detail is not precisely right, but still. . .

The iconic power of photograph 51 is probably too cemented to dislodge, and she did, after all, use it in her Nature paper of 1953. So, my irritation at the UK’s commemorative 50p piece is subsumed by the fact that it is a beautiful thing, and better this than nothing:

But remember: it was her data that counted, not that photo. The person who made all the fuss about the photo was Jim Watson, in his novelised account. In that respect, our memory of her is still determined by his account, which should not be taken as historically accurate except where it can be independently verified. Above all, she did so much more than provide the data that were used to discover the double helix. With luck, at her bicentenary a more balanced view will dominant popular culture.

* Two exceptions are this week’s editorial in Nature and an article in the Times Literary Supplement by the historian of science Patricia Fara. Both are excellent brief accounts of Franklin’s life that, as Fara’s title puts it, go ‘beyond the double helix’. Strikingly, both still refer to that photo, rather than the key role of Franklin’s data. That tells you all you need to know about the grip of Watson’s account.

If you want to know more about Franklin, Brenda Maddox’s biography The Dark Lady of DNA is excellent. My book Life’s Greatest Secret (2015) contains a detailed chapter on the double helix and Franklin’s contribution.

39 photos you probably haven’t seen

June 2, 2022 • 1:30 pm

YouTube is full of photomontages like this saying, “50 rare historical photos” and so on, but most of them are lousy. This one, however, I found interesting, and there are some doozies in here.  My favorites include the Ukrainian-American restaurant offering free borscht on the occasion of Stalin’s death, and, especially, the Jew wearing his Iron Cross, earned in WW1, standing in front of his shop in Nazi Germany, along with a Nazi soldier trying to intimidate customers from entering the store.

Here’s the one I mentioned:

Readers’ wildlife photos and stories: Toxic nectar!

May 16, 2022 • 8:00 am

Today we have another entomological tale from reader Athayde Tonhasca Júnior. The prose is his and the photos are credited (click to enlarge photos):

Toxic Nectar

In 401 BC, an army of Greek mercenaries led by Commander Xenophon crossed Anatolia (modern day Turkey) to seize the throne of Persia. Xenophon kept a diary of the expedition, entitled Anabasis, or ‘The March of the Ten Thousand’, which today is a classic of ancient Greek literature. Among many battles and other adventures, the commander described one curious episode. His troops came across a supply of honey, and some of the men went for it with gusto. In no time they regretted it: the soldiers could not stand up, and were assailed by bouts of vomiting and diarrhoea. ‘So they lay, hundreds of them, as if there had been a great defeat, a prey to the cruellest despondency. But the next day, none had died; and almost at the same hour of the day at which they had eaten they recovered their senses, and on the third or fourth day got on their legs again like convalescents after a severe course of medical treatment.’ (Anabasis, Book IV).

Fig. 1. ‘The march of the Ten Thousand’ by Bernard Granville Baker, 1901.

The Romans had their own taste of Anatolian honey, this time with grimmer consequences. In 97 BC, General Pompey the Great led an army across Turkey in pursuit of king Mithridates of Pontus, an old enemy of Rome. The local people, known as the Heptacomitae, withdrew. But they left a gift for Pompey’s men, possibly on Mithridates’ orders. The geographer and historian Strabo tells us what happened: ‘The Heptacomitae cut down three maniples [around 1,500 soldiers] of Pompey’s army when they were passing through the mountainous country; for they mixed bowls of the crazing honey which is yielded by the tree-twigs, and placed them in the roads, and then, when the soldiers drank the mixture and lost their senses, they attacked them and easily disposed of them.’

Fig. 2. Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, Pompey the Great. The Roman general didn’t expect honey used against his troops © Michël Manseur, Wikimedia Commons.

Strabo’s ‘crazing honey’ that incapacitated those Greek and Roman troops is known today as ‘mad honey’. It comes from nectar produced by the common rhododendron (Rhododendron ponticum), which is endemic and abundant in northern Turkey, the Black Sea region. This plant is full of grayanotoxins, a group of toxic substances that protect it against herbivores, but also accumulate in the nectar.

Fig. 3. The common rhododendron, a source of mad honey © Rasbak, Wikipedia.

The bees that produce mad honey, the Caucasian (Apis mellifera caucasia) and Anatolian (Apis mellifera anatoliaca) honey bee subspecies, seem to be resistant to grayanotoxins. But other subspecies are not: they die, or become paralysed, sluggish or erratic after consuming R. ponticum nectar – although they learn to avoid rhododendron flowers. For reasons not yet known, common rhododendron growing outside its native range has lower levels of grayanotoxins, so mad honey is not a problem.

Fig. 4. Northern Turkey, home of mad honey © Modern Farmer.

Rhododendron honey is eaten in tiny amounts by local people for its perceived medicinal, hallucinogenic or aphrodisiac properties. But an adventurous gourmet taking even a spoonful of the stuff risks being struck by a long list of unpleasant and dangerous clinical symptoms. Indeed, it is not uncommon for people in Turkey – some of them tourists – to end up in the hospital after experimenting with mad honey.

So if you find yourself in Anatolia for your holidays, don’t be too bold in exploring exotic local products. You may share the fate of Pompey’s soldiers.

Fig. 5. Turkish mad honey, known locally as deli bal or tutan bal © turkishmadhoney.com.

A plant that secretes toxic nectar may seem to be engaged in self-harm, as this sugar-rich substance is the main incentive for pollinators to pay a visit to its flowers. But hundreds of plant species produce nectar laced with secondary compounds such as alkaloids, terpenes and phenolics, which are often noxious or unpalatable. So there must a reason for this apparent paradox. Toxicity may be a way of excluding inefficient pollinators, reserving the metabolically expensive nectar for a few specialists that are immune to secondary compounds. Many of these chemicals defend plants against pathogens and herbivores, so a few dead pollinators may be acceptable collateral damage.

Toxic honey may be a side effect of nectar with protective properties, but the broad-leaved helleborine orchid () intoxicates flower visitors for its own benefit.

Fig. 6. A broad-leaved helleborine flower © Björn S., Wikipedia.

This orchid is found throughout much of Europe and Asia in all sorts of habitats. It was introduced to America, where it is viewed as an invasive species in some states. Despite packing a reasonable supply of nectar, the broad-leaved helleborine is often ignored by insects, a fact noted by Charles Darwin. The orchid’s small, inconspicuous, greenish/purplish flowers are not exactly good marketing for attracting bees and other pollinators. But one group of insects are keen visitors: social wasps such as the European (Vespula germanica) and the common wasp (V. vulgaris).

Adult wasps feed mostly on carbohydrates, which they get from nectar – or from your sugary drink, if you give them a chance. But the nectar of broad-leaved helleborines is special: it’s laced with chemicals with narcotic properties. It also contains ethanol and other alcohols, possibly as the result of fermentation by yeasts and bacteria. This chemical cocktail is toxic or repellent to many visitors, but not to wasps: they lap it up. Unavoidably, a concoction of opioid and morphine derivatives plus alcohol, even in minute amounts, has consequences for its consumers. Wasps become intoxicated and sluggish after a few sips, which suits the orchid very well. They spend more time on the flower, staggering about and thus increasing their chances of ending up with a pollinium (a sticky mass of pollen grains) glued to their heads. Watch tipsy wasps at work. Nobody knows if the wasps are hungover afterwards.

Fig. 7. A wasp with pollinia attached to its face © Saarland, Wikipedia.

Orchids are highly diverse: with approximately 25,000 described species, they make up about 10% of all flowering plants. About one third of orchids do not offer food rewards – nectar or pollen – to visitors. Instead, they have evolved all sorts of tricks to attract insects. Some flowers have the shape, colours or scents of food-rewarding plants; they may bait male insects by resembling their female counterparts, or by releasing pheromone mimics.

It’s no wonder orchids were the subject of Darwin’s second book, published in 1862 (On the Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids Are Fertilised by Insects, and On the Good Effects of Intercrossing). Darwin worked with orchids to test some evolutionary ideas such as coevolution. He could never have imagined that his studies would inspire H.G. Wells (1866-1946) to write the tale of a Mr Winter-Wedderburn, who buys a strange orchid and tells his housekeeper: ‘There are such queer things about orchids. Darwin studied their fertilisation, and showed that the whole structure of an ordinary orchid flower was contrived in order that moths might carry the pollen from plant to plant’. But science turns to horror when the orchid flowers: it produces a scent that makes Winter-Wedderburn pass out. The orchid wraps its roots around his neck to suck his blood, but luckily the housekeeper is on hand to rescue the unfortunate gardener from the vampire plant. Wells’ story was translated into several languages and inspired numerous imitators into a new genre of science/horror fiction that is still around today: the man-killing plants. if you are old enough, you may remember the hungry orchid from Little Shop of Horrors.

Fig. 8. Herbert George Wells: ‘The flowering of the strange orchid’, The Pall Mall Budget, 1894.

The reception of Wells’ story reflects our fascination with Nature and its mysterious ways. Certainly much more remains to be discovered about plants and their pollinators, so many a fantastic tale can yet be written.

A repost of a post by Matthew: Belgian resistance fighters try to free a trainload of Jews headed to Auschwitz

April 19, 2022 • 11:30 am

Exactly two years ago today, Matthew, who’s studied European resistance to the Nazis and written books about it, wrote on this site about a daring and largely successful attempt of three members of the Belgian Resistance to free a trainload of Jews being taken to Auschwitz. It’s a great story about a horror that has so few upsides, and I’m going to link to it again today. Simply click on the title below to go to Matthew’s 2020 post.

Bravery in the midst of horror: the attack on Convoy 20 to Auschwitz

Matthew Cobb

77 years ago, on the evening of 19-20th April 1943, an audacious operation to save Jews being deported to Nazi Germany took place in Belgium. This was the only known organized attempt in the whole of Occupied Europe to stop the deportation of Jews. What follows is an extract from my book The Resistance: The French Fight Against the Nazis (2010). These passages are based on Marion Schreiber’s excellent 2000 work, translated in 2004 as The Twentieth Train: The True Story of the Ambush of the Death Train to Auschwitz.