As I roam the internet daily for interesting World War II-related histories I come across a lot of photos. Usually, I save them, but I never really do anything with them. After reading Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others last week, an essay on war photography, I thought it would be interesting to pick out fifteen photographs from my collection that I find beautiful or startling.
I wrote a short essay about the portrayal of the sacred Jedi texts as paper books in the new Star Wars movie, and how this relates to totalitarianism and the resistance against it. It’s available to read here on Medium.com. Needless to say, spoilers for The Last Jedi.
Could we imagine that there were once many paper copies of the Jedi texts, which every Jedi was required to own? Would the Empire, and the First Order after it, apply the same censure that the Nazis did, campaigning to destroy all paper copies in the galaxy? The choice the creators of the new trilogy made to go with paper books is certainly an interesting one. Why, in a futuristic society like that of the Star Wars galaxy, where people fly in space ships and use digital interfaces everywhere (even in the 1970s movies), would the sacred Jedi writings be captured in perishable paper books? Why not in a more enduring format like stone or metal tablets, or on some type of holographic device stored in an R2-unit, or even carved into a wall? To my knowledge, these are the first examples of physical reading material in the Star Wars movies. When we see them on screen, they appear to be colourful leather-bound books that might also be the collected works of Dickens or Austen. For the viewer, seeing ancient books on screen immediately communicates that they are valuable, authoritative, precious, and vulnerable: they seem distinctly human in a movie that is chock full of aliens and futuristic apparatuses. So why was it so symbolic for Luke to destroy them, and why did Rey save them if she already had all the knowledge she needed to get on? After all, once the people in charge decide that Torah rolls are of more use in a leather factory to patch up the soles of German soldiers’ boots, or that the letters of Tolstoy may as well be used to wrap fish in the marketplace, how do they retain their credibility? The situation only requires for one person to decide that what is written down must be preserved for future generations, when those who have the knowledge in their heads are gone.
I’d had the date marked on my calendar for weeks: 16 and 17 September, Market Garden weekend. On 17 September, 1944, many a Dutch citizen in the south of the country looked up to the sky to see ‘falling angels’, aka Allied paratroopers, taking part in the largest airborne operation of the entire war.
Some months ago, I was asked to contribute an article to TXT Magazine, an academic publication from the University of Leiden’s Book and Digital Media Studies department, which generally focuses on the creation, dissemination and adaptation of books and texts as objects. The theme of this issue was ‘navigating seas of text’. I knew I wanted to write about something World War II-related – naturally – and dove into my reading, finally settling on writing about the role of three American librarians during the war. I relished the opportunity to do research on and write about some cool ladies and about the importance of books during the conflict, and it’s very exciting to see it in print at last! I have scanned it in and it’s available to read under the cut.
As the temperatures are finally consistently running into the high twenties Celsius here, it’s funny to think that only about two months ago I was walking around in Riga in a snowstorm – granted, one that only lasted a day. We went out then, on Easter Sunday, thinking we might do some sightseeing, but ended up frantically hunting around for a coffee place to take shelter in. And as we sat sipping a cappuccino and nibbling on a poppy-seed doughnut at the foot of an imposing Russian orthodox church – the only proper ‘high rise’ in the centre of Riga, really – the sun came out and the snow stopped. Instantly the streets were filled with people, where only an hour before only a few arctic explorers like ourselves could be seen plodding along. Happily, the following days were filled with sunshine, and on the day we left, I carried my coat draped over my arm – it was that warm.
Lately, in the context of Remembrance Day here in the Netherlands, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the different ways in which World War II is being remembered today. For us, being occupied by Nazi Germany during the war has become a foundation myth of our identity, and most Dutch novels, films, and even musicals (Soldier of Orange, based on the book of the same name) about the war centre around the two main protagonists in that myth: the evil collaborators and the virtuous members of the resistance. You can even pretend to be a member of the underground press in an escape room in Nijmegen, racing against the clock to escape discovery by the Nazis.
A visit to Amsterdam is always a treat – whenever I’m down there for the day I seem to soak up the art, architecture, exhilaration, diversity and history of the city like a sponge. Here is a collection of snapshots I took during various visits in the past few months.