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Magda Hellinger was a 25-year-old Jewish kindergarten teacher when she was deported to Auschwitz from Slovakia in March of 1942. She was one of the few who survived more than three years in a concentration camp, eventually relocating to Australia, where she lived to be almost 90. During her lifetime, Hellinger shared her experiences in interviews with organizations such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, all while secretly writing a memoir of her experiences at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The Nazis Knew My Name is grounded in that memoir, self-published in 2003, but enhanced by Hellinger’s daughter, Maya Lee, who has added further research and details from her mother’s oral testimonies. The result is a compelling and seamless portrait of a young woman who managed to survive and save others through cunning bravery and compassionate leadership.

At the core of Hellinger’s approach was this: “I constantly encouraged women to work together—a very simple form of resistance. A lonely, isolated woman was always more vulnerable than one who had others looking out for her.” Her determination and use of resistance tactics emerge time and again in this chronological account of her imprisonment, which lasted until the end of World War II.

When Hellinger was given the role of block leader at Auschwitz, she realized it was crucial that the prisoners under her charge avoid any behavior that would attract attention from Nazi officials. She therefore focused on trying to keep the women under her care as healthy as possible, making sure newcomers understood the rules of the camp and warning them of the most volatile guards. And while it was dangerous to challenge SS officers directly, at key moments Hellinger did exactly that, often risking her own life to win some small concession, such as replacing worn clothing for the prisoners.

The strain of Hellinger’s various roles must have taken an enormous psychological toll. At one point, she had 30,000 women under her care, yet she didn’t falter and always returned to the touchstone of cooperation. She mobilized others to improve sanitary conditions, ensure that food was distributed fairly and hide the most vulnerable prisoners to prevent them from being selected for the gas chamber. “If we could do these things, we might save a few lives, or make life a little more bearable,” Hellinger writes. “But we had to work together.”

The Nazis Knew My Name offers dreadful insights into the workings of Auschwitz-Birkenau, but at its heart, it remains an extraordinary portrait of one young woman who fought for others in the midst of unimaginable horror.

Holocaust survivor Magda Hellinger offers a compelling memoir of fighting for others in the midst of unimaginable horror.

Sure, the Plantagenets fought each other for a couple of generations, and the Tudors had wives and dynastic rivals beheaded. But if you think their reigns were bloody, just wait until you meet the Merovingians, the riveting royal family in Shelley Puhak’s The Dark Queens: The Bloody Rivalry That Forged the Medieval World. The violent struggles of House Brunhild and House Fredegund make those later conflicts look like kindergarten playtime.

The Merovingians were the rulers of the Franks in the Middle Ages, in territory now encompassing most of France and western Germany. History books have tended to neglect them—but two Merovingian queens have survived in legend and art, in much distorted forms. Puhak, an acclaimed poet, now brings a feminist eye to Queens Brunhild and Fredegund, who in real life were savvy, powerful and dangerous women.

Brunhild, a Visigoth princess, and Fredegund, a formerly enslaved woman who charmed her way to a throne, were married to half-brothers, each of whom ruled over part of the Frankish territory. The brothers were deadly competitors, and after they were both assassinated, their widows took power as regents for young sons and continued the savage rivalry.

Murders, kidnappings, perilous escapes, suicide missions, poisoned knives, marriage plots, witchcraft allegations: This book has them all. Fredegund, the more vicious ruler, attempted 12 assassinations and succeeded at six. Brunhild maneuvered her way into regencies for her son, grandsons and great-grandsons. One queen died in her bed; the other met an end so horrible that it’s the only thing many French people know about her.

The king who ultimately succeeded to both their thrones consciously erased them from history in a Stalin-esque purge. Later medieval writers vilified them as bossy harridans. Bizarrely, Brunhild lives on in name only as the “Brünnhilde” of the German epic poem “The Song of the Nibelungs” and Wagner’s Ringoperas.

Puhak doesn’t pretend these women weren’t ruthless in their pursuit of power, but she also acknowledges the misogynist social and political context that shaped them. Most of all, The Dark Queens demonstrates that Brunhild’s and Fredegund’s names deserve to be in the historical annals as much as any king’s.

Murders, kidnappings, perilous escapes, suicide missions, poisoned knives, marriage plots, witchcraft allegations: The Dark Queens has them all.

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.

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