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All European History Coverage

While the Middle Ages may seem like ancient history, the proliferation of medieval-themed festivals testifies to our enduring interest in knights, jousting and chivalry. Such gatherings present only the thinnest veneer of the times, of course, masking the rich details that characterized the Middle Ages. With fast-paced storytelling, historian Dan Jones' captivating Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages carries readers over the expansive history of the years 410 to 1527. We meet kings and philosophers, clerics and bankers, theologians and scientists, and explorers and navigators as Jones illustrates an era full of the sorts of challenges we still grapple with today: pandemics, the privilege of a moneyed merchant class, war, climate change and more.

Jones' magisterial history opens with the fall of Rome in the early fifth century. Mass migrations and a changing climate contributed to an already weakened imperial government, and invaders eventually tore down the walls of the empire. By the sixth and seventh centuries, the first Islamic empires came to power, ushering in new developments in politics and science. Jones examines the roles of monks and knights during this time and explores the age of the Franks, who established a pseudo-Roman Christian empire that gave birth to the Crusades. Jones also helpfully points out that the Crusades did not always feature conflict between Christians and Muslims in battle for control of Jerusalem, but in fact several Crusades grew out of intra-Christian disagreements about orthodoxy and heresy.

In all, Jones introduces readers to the "merchants who invented extraordinary new financial techniques to make themselves and the world richer; scholars who revived the wisdom of the ancients and founded some of today's greatest universities; and the architects and engineers who built the cities, cathedrals, and castles that still stand five hundred years on, as portals back to the medieval world." A sprawling book to cover a sprawling history, Powers and Thrones is essential reading for everyone interested in the ways a 1,100-year period changed the course of our cultural history in profound ways.

With fast-paced storytelling, Dan Jones introduces the kings, philosophers, clerics, bankers, theologians, scientists and navigators who defined the Middle Ages.

Clothing can accomplish many things. It can bestow group identity or express individuality. Creating it can be both an artistic outlet and drudgery. It can reflect the highest standards of craftsmanship or be as simple as sewing a seam. It is both performance and practicality. And, as we learn from Lucy Adlington’s The Dressmakers of Auschwitz: The True Story of the Women Who Sewed to Survive, clothing can be a lifeline out of hell.

It’s difficult to imagine a more unlikely (or hideous) juxtaposition than a fashion salon in Auschwitz. But there it was: a fashion studio and workshop literally yards away from the interrogation block used to torture prisoners. Author and costume historian Adlington discovered the “Upper Salon” while researching a book on the global textile industry during World War II. Established by the larcenous and amoral Hedwig Höss, wife of Auschwitz commander Rudolf Höss, the salon’s official mission was to provide beautiful, haute couture clothing to the wives of top-ranking Nazis, female SS guards at the camp and, foremost, Frau Höss herself. The salon’s other purpose was to provide a safe haven for the enslaved female laborers who, under the supervision of Marta Fuchs, a Jewish prisoner from Slovakia, cut, sewed and altered the outfits that would adorn their tormentors.

Adlington does an excellent job of telling the story of Marta and all the other women whose lives were spared because they had the skills to work in the comparative safety of the Upper Salon. She also provides the greater historical context of how the Nazi government viewed fashion as both a powerful propaganda weapon and an important tool for funding the Holocaust.

This information is helpful in understanding the journeys these designers, seamstresses and cutters took to Auschwitz and the Upper Salon, and overall Adlington weaves historical information into the individual dressmakers’ stories well. But the most powerful lesson from The Dressmakers of Auschwitz is how the bonds of friendship, family and skill allowed these women to survive with humanity while resisting the brutality around them.

It’s difficult to imagine a salon in Auschwitz, but there was in fact a fashion studio mere yards away from the interrogation block used to torture prisoners.

After the image went viral of a man dressed in a Viking headdress and face paint at the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, there was a deluge of criticism of the contemporary celebration of medieval imagery. White supremacist groups have lately embraced such imagery, including symbols from the Scandanavian marauders and Christian Crusaders. As The Viking Heart opens, Arthur Herman anticipates these critiques.

“The crucial mistake many make is to insist that the defining legacy of the Viking heart is somehow racial,” Herman writes. “In truth, the Norsemen of the Dark Ages never formed a single race or even one national identity. What defined them was a way of life and an outlook that we can delineate as cultural and spiritual, and they still have relevance and meaning today.” 

What follows is a comprehensive history of the different groups that would eventually be known as the Vikings. Herman also includes an outline of Scandinavians’ contemporary contributions to European and American history, from their involvement in the Civil War as Union soldiers to Knute Rockne’s legendary football coaching career. He attributes such contributions not to some set of uniquely Scandinavian genetic traits but to what he calls the “Viking heart”—an unquenchable thirst for improvement married to a strong sense of community-building.

Whether you’re new to Viking scholarship or a well-read medievalist, The Viking Heart has something to offer. While there are some places where Herman could have better amplified the advantages Scandinavians experienced as immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, all in all, The Viking Heart honestly assesses the results of the Vikings’ past actions around the world and makes an evenhanded argument for the importance of Viking culture in U.S. history. 

As we wrestle with how to make our world a better, more equal place, The Viking Heart provides a framework for recognizing the importance of the past in shaping our present and future.

Arthur Herman attributes Scandinavians’ many historical contributions to the “Viking heart,” an unquenchable thirst for improvement and community-building.

In The Gallery of Miracles and Madness: Insanity, Modernism, and Hitler’s War on Art, Charlie English, former head of international news at the Guardian, tells the tale of two art critics.

The first, Hans Prinzhorn, was an art historian and psychiatrist. Employed by the Heidelberg University Psychiatric Hospital in 1919, he was given the task of cataloging and evaluating the patients’ artwork for diagnostic purposes. Prinzhorn quickly realized that these works were more than expressions of mental illness. They were art, filled with life’s horror, humanity and energy. He set about collecting more artworks from different clinics and asylums and, in 1922, published the influential book Artistry of the Mentally Ill

The second critic was a self-taught Austrian artist named Adolf Hitler. English explains that Hitler primarily considered himself an artist and thought his greatest work would be the German people. Creating “pure” German art would be key to the success of that project. Yet Hitler could not say what German art was; he could only say what it was not. And it definitely was not produced by people who were mentally ill.

To prove that point, Hitler ordered an exhibition of “degenerate art,” including works from Prinzhorn’s collection, to show how “corrupt” and “insane” modern art had become. For Hitler, an unworthy life was as disposable and valueless as unworthy art. Consequently, he went on to orchestrate the murder of tens of thousands of those whose lives he deemed “unworthy,” including people who were disabled and chronically ill—and at least two dozen of the Prinzhorn artists.

This is not an abstract book of ideas. The battle between these two views of art was, literally, a matter of life and death, so English uses the life and death of Franz Karl Bühler, the most accomplished of Prinzhorn’s artists, to frame his story. From master ironsmith to psychiatric patient to discovered artist, all the way to the terrifying details that led to his murder by carbon monoxide gassing, Bühler’s life and death illuminate the void at the heart of Nazism.

The Gallery of Miracles and Madness is profoundly heartbreaking, unexpectedly redeeming and immensely important.

In The Gallery of Miracles and Madness, Charlie English tells the tale of two art critics: Hans Prinzhorn and Adolf Hitler.

While hunkered down in her apartment with two young daughters, a 9-month-old son and her husband during the COVID-19 pandemic, Judy Batalion has heard rumors from neighbors and friends of marriages on the rocks because of close quarters and unrelieved familial contact. It’s not nearly the same, Batalion declares, but it reminds her of the Jewish families trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II.

“Families were under high pressure, squeezed together, and studies show that in the [Warsaw] Ghetto, there was a very high rate of divorce,” Batalion says during a call to her apartment in Manhattan. She quips that her own home is “now also a preschool, an elementary school, a daycare, a corporate boardroom and a gym.”

Uncomfortable? Sure. But nothing like the disruption and terror of Jewish life in Poland under the Nazis, which Batalion describes in The Light of Days, her groundbreaking narrative history of the young Polish women at the forefront of the Jewish resistance. “The norms of family life were turned upside down,” Batalion says. “Many of the men were afraid to leave the house. It was easier for women and children to leave or escape, to go out to hunt for food, to smuggle, even to physically squeeze out through the ghetto walls. So there was a cascade of role reversals.”

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Light of Days.

Those reversals were part of a confluence of events that led a number of idealistic, restless, brave young Jewish women—some of them barely teenagers—to volunteer as couriers, informants and fighters in the struggle against the Nazis in Poland. Batalion first discovered fragments of their stories in a slender, musty book written in Yiddish that she found in the British Library.

Batalion grew up in Montreal, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. After graduating from Harvard, she spent a decade in London earning a Ph.D. in art history and developing a career as a comedian. “In England I was dealing with issues of my own Jewish identity, because being Jewish there seems so rare,” she says. “I wanted to write a performance piece about strong Jewish women, and I wanted a few historical figures to frame the piece.” So she went to the library.

Batalion was stunned by her discovery of the book, whose title translates as Women in the Ghettos. “I knew right away there was something to it,” she says. She was eventually awarded a grant to translate the book into English, but the translation work required significant contextual research. As her research grew, the translation project morphed into a parallel history project that became The Light of Days.

"I wanted to tell these women’s stories, and I thought telling it as a story would be more appealing to readers."

“Very little has been written in English, even academically, about these figures,” Batalion says. “And the bits that have been written read like encyclopedia entries—a snippet here, a snippet there. But those snippets don’t end up meaning anything. It’s hard to remember them. I wanted to tell these women’s stories, and I thought telling it as a story would be more appealing to readers.”

At the center of Batalion’s book is Renia Kukielka, whose commitment to resistance began when she was 15 years old. “She was a woman of action,” Batalion says. “As her children told me, she wasn’t someone who looked right and left and right and left. She just went! She had gut instincts. . . . She was savvy, smart and daring.”

The Light of Days follows the arc of Kukielka’s life through the early 1940s. Along the way, her story interweaves with those of about a dozen other female activists—such as Bela Hazan, who went undercover in a remarkable way. “At the height of the Holocaust, she worked as a translator and served tea to the Gestapo,” Batalion says. There’s even a photograph of Hazan with two other Jewish activists at a Gestapo Christmas party. “She lied to them that her brother had died so she could get a pass to travel to Vilna. The office sent her a condolence card! Later she masqueraded as a Catholic woman to help Jewish people in the infirmary at Auschwitz.”

“This is not a narrative about the Holocaust that I’d ever heard before. I kept feeling that if I didn’t tell it, who would?"

Then there was Frumka Plotnicki, who was “an introverted, serious person, a person the whole movement looked to and who refused to [escape the ghetto],” says Batalion. “Time and again she was told to leave, but she couldn’t. She had to be there to fight. She was one of the few who went down shooting.”

When Batalion began working on The Light of Days, she discovered that not even a general narrative history of the Jewish resistance in Poland existed. Working from sometimes contradictory memoirs and recorded testimonies, Batalion’s first task was to create a chronology of the resistance—a laborious but necessary effort that adds context and depth to the story she tells. The book has more than 900 endnotes, down from the original 3,000, and two dozen illuminating photographs.

Batalion acknowledges that the valiant women she portrays in The Light of Days were not the only female Jewish resistors in Poland or Europe. They’re just the first ones we’ll be able to read about in such depth. “It felt so important for me that these stories are told,” Batalion says. “This is not a narrative about the Holocaust that I’d ever heard before. I kept feeling that if I didn’t tell it, who would? In the most difficult, tortuous circumstances, they stood up. The bravery of these very young women inspired me.”

Judy Batalion tells the long-hidden stories of a number of idealistic, restless, brave young Jewish women who volunteered as couriers, informants and fighters in the struggle against the Nazis in Poland.

As Judy Batalian notes toward the end of her scrupulously researched narrative history, The Light of Days, there were plenty of reasons why the stories of young Jewish women who valiantly resisted the Nazis in Europe during World War II were ignored or silenced after the war. Some of those reasons were sexist, but most weren’t so nefarious. Still, the effect until now has been that bits and pieces of this great story have been scattered through bygone personal memoirs and archived survivor testimonies.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Judy Batalion shares the amazing discovery she made while browsing the stacks at the British Library.

The Light of Days is a huge achievement that brings an overarching coherence to this largely unknown story. Batalian focuses on the lives and actions of about a dozen and a half young women and teenage girls who joined the fray in the Polish ghettos in Warsaw and Bedzin. Chief among these was the spirited Renia Kukielka, who became a courier for one of the activist Jewish youth groups at the core of the resistance. Batalion interweaves the personalities and actions of other young women—messengers and warriors—into the arc of Kukielka’s story. The narrative reaches its crescendo in the spring and summer of 1943, during and just after the dramatic but ultimately unsuccessful Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Batalion uses a kind of you-are-there approach that at times feels awkward but dramatically makes its point in the end. 

The Light of Days also offers arresting insights into community life during this perilous time. It is astounding to read about the number and variety of Jewish youth groups that commanded the loyalties of young people. It’s also surreal to learn that mail continued to circulate among Jewish communities even as the Nazi killing machine was roaring down the tracks. 

Batalian interviewed many survivors’ families, and these passages in the book invite us to wonder what it would be like to battle and survive for half a decade, witnessing the loss of friends and family, only to resume a “normal” life after experiencing all that trauma. Kukielka at least seemed to maintain some essential part of herself through it all. Her adult life, Batalion reports, was “happy, passionate, filled with beauty.”

The Light of Days, a scrupulously researched narrative history about young Jewish women who resisted the Nazis in Europe, is a huge achievement.

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