Punting on the River Cherwell in the Wallis Simpson: A True Story

Image of punting on Oxford, England's River Cherwell

Recent revelations about the nefarious doings of the royal House of Windsor took me back to the time, long ago, when I worked as a landscape gardener with Solomoni & Hoy on the huge home being built in exclusive Pebble Beach, California, for S.F.B. Morse. I spent almost nine months on the Pebble Beach project as the mansion was completed and made ready for occupancy by its millionaire owner. Once the Morses moved in, I was given the additional task of creating a small, nearly-enclosed garden that SFB could view from his study window.

Image of the Duke and Duchess of WindsorIn the course of this project, which required long hours laying out stepping stones and setting in shrubs and plants, I grew accustomed to seeing SFB and his wife standing on a small balcony several feet over my head, observing my progress. Sometimes I’d catch a glimpse of Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, Lucius Beebe, and other Pebble Beach celebrities peering down, too. One day I looked up to see two very small-looking, quite thin individuals looking at me. I immediately recognized the curious pair as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. They peered down, I nodded and smiled recognition; they smiled back, and I returned to my potting.

Image of newspaper report of King Edward VIII's abdicationThe other day I mentioned the incident to someone I’ve known since those years. He remembered the occasion of the royal visit, and for an intriguing reason. A socially prominent family with an enormously expensive mansion in Pebble Beach wanted to host the former King Edward VIII and his wife, but were put off by the fact that the royal couple required a considerable fee to accept the invitation. My, oh my, was ever Fate so unkind to anyone as she was to poor Wallis Simpson? For in that Pebble Beach mansion the toilet seats were disguised as thrones. But for her greed, the Duchess might finally have achieved her dream of sitting on one.

To this day, the House of Windsor continues to be a story within a story—and from a public relations perspective, it’s a story without end. An incident in Oxford, England, years after my Pebble Beach encounter with the Duke and Duchess, explains why.

Image of Oxford undergraduate preparing to puntIt was a beautiful day in Oxford and seemed like a romantic thing to do, to pay a few quid to take a punt on the River Cherwell. Getting into the seat, I asked the poler—he who handles the pole—if punts had names. An undergraduate at one of Oxford’s colleges, he replied, “Yes. This one is named Wallis Simpson.” He noted my look of surprise. “Why in the world would someone give that name to a punt?” I asked. “Because she’s slippery and has a flat bottom,” he replied with a smile. Though I’m not certain about the flat bottom, he was right about the slippery part when it came to Wallis Simpson, the would-be Queen of England. Not the best way to be remembered, surely. Unfortunately, the House of Windsor didn’t have Saatchi & Saatchi when Edward VIII was forced to abdicate in December 1936 “to marry the woman I love,” a thrice-wed American socialite whose morals were questionable at best.

What the House of Windsor Needed Was Saatchi & Saatchi

What is Saatchi & Saatchi? An advertising and public relations agency employing 7,000 creative people, copywriters, and PR specialists at more than 140 offices in 80 countries. Their job is to promote, protect, and sell, so when someone big has an image problem, Saatchi & Saatchi is the place to turn. Toyota, Procter & Gamble, General Mills, Westinghouse Electric, Sony, Visa, PriceWaterhouse, and Toshiba are clients. The House of Windsor joined this distinguished list in 1997, following Princess Diana’s death and plummeting poll numbers for England’s ruling family. Today, everything the royals do or say is scripted and committee-approved, like the corporation the House of Windsor really is. Sadly for the Windsors, Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII didn’t have Saatchi & Saatchi around to perk up their numbers when the king was forced to abdicate. Demoted to Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the couple left England for Portugal to plot their return to the throne with help from Herr Hitler. We know how that turned out.

Image of Wallis Simpson and her husband greeting Adolf Hitler

In the meantime, the management of the Kingdom was turned over to Edward’s younger brother, the father of the current Queen, Elizabeth II. The new king and his missus, the late Queen Mother, once spent a pleasant afternoon in the gardens of Buckingham Palace teaching the young princesses how to perfect their Nazi salute. Captured on film, the event recently came to public attention, along with plentiful excuses and loud denials from palace corporate headquarters. It was all in fun, just a lark, they explain—adding that everyone in England was going around sieg-heiling back then.

Image of House of Windsor members giving Nazi saluteWhatever the House of Windsor claims, however, I remember Wallis Simpson declaring that she’d become Queen of England at any price. And I remember the Queen Mother, who’d just begun keeping house in her newly acquired 775-room palace, saying she’d be happy enough if the Nazis invaded England, “as long as they kept the royal family.” I hear their denials and I think of their image-makers. I hear their excuses and I think Saatchi & Saatchi—especially today, as I read that the Queen Mother practiced her firing-aim by shooting rats at Buckingham Palace, in case Nazi parachutists ever came fluttering down in the skies over London. The history behind Princess Elizabeth’s Nazi salute is dark indeed. So is the story of Wallis Simpson, England’s would-be Nazi Queen.

Why John Steinbeck Would Support Bernie Sanders Now

Composite image of Bernie Sanders, John Steinbeck, Franklin Roosevelt, and Adlai Stevenson

If John Steinbeck were alive today he would support Bernie Sanders for president.

Why? Because Bernie Sanders is the kind of outspoken progressive the author of The Grapes of Wrath enthusiastically embraced during his controversial career as a prize-winning writer of popular fiction. A passionate believer in fair play, Steinbeck endorsed presidential candidates committed to populist causes, actively campaigning for Franklin Roosevelt, who was elected four times, and Adlai Stevenson, who ran twice but lost both races. More than either man, Bernie Sanders talks straight in plain language about equality and integrity, Steinbeck’s core values—a New England character trait that Steinbeck both admired and inherited. The Sanders movement is about issues, not personality; Steinbeck wanted to be remembered for his books, not his life. But his life was public and political, and a little biography is needed to show why he’d be for Bernie Sanders today.

Why John Steinbeck and Bernie Sanders Would Get Along

Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California, in 1902, and grew up in the small town during the era of Theodore Roosevelt, the Republican President who busted the big business trusts and moved to curtail private exploitation of public lands by creating parks such as Yosemite. John’s mother was an ex-schoolteacher and tireless civic volunteer. His father was a failed small-businessman who became the elected Treasurer of Monterey County. His mother’s parents emigrated from Ireland, while his father’s people were New Englanders—half-English and half-German. Both parents were Party-of-Lincoln Republicans who believed in social improvement, access to education, and reforming government to make it work better. Steinbeck was proud of these roots, later writing that everybody in Salinas was a Republican back then, and that if he had stayed in Salinas he would have become one, too.

Steinbeck was proud of his roots, later writing that everybody in Salinas was a Republican back then, and that if he had stayed in Salinas he would have become one, too.

Like Bernie Sanders, John Steinbeck grew to distrust the corrupting influence of corporations and how working people were manipulated to vote against their economic self-interest—urban vs. rural, native- vs. foreign-born, small farmers and white laborers vs. Mexicans, Chinese, Filipinos, and refugees from the Dust Bowl. He hated the social snobbery he encountered as a student at Stanford University in the 1920s, working as a field hand and night watchman in summers and off-semesters to help pay his way but quitting before getting a degree. In 1925 he left for New York to find his own way. There, like Bernie Sanders, he failed at more than one job before returning to California to make ends meet as a caretaker-handyman on a rich man’s estate. The Great Depression that resulted from Wall Street’s collapse in 1929 gave Steinbeck the subject he needed to become a politically engaged writer: the brutal suppression of non-union workers by California’s big business interests. The state’s powerful industrial-agriculture complex became the target of his 1939 masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath.

The Great Depression that resulted from Wall Street’s collapse in 1929 gave Steinbeck the subject he needed to become a politically engaged writer: the brutal suppression of non-union workers by California’s big business interests.

Also like Bernie Sanders today—and most Americans at the time—Steinbeck believed in gun-rights, but was too tenderhearted to hunt. Instead, he kept a gun for self-protection. Hired thugs threatened to break his legs or worse for what he was writing about workers’ rights, even before The Grapes of Wrath, and the sheriff warned him of a plot to set him up for a rape charge. Threats failed to change his mind, and the celebrity he achieved through his writing changed his behavior but not his character. Like Bernie Sanders, he remained pro-labor all his life and more at ease with working people than with billionaires. He refused to own a Ford because Henry Ford was an anti-union anti-Semite whose cars Steinbeck thought inferior. Steinbeck described another billionaire as so driven by avarice that late-life regret forced him to try buying his way into heaven through philanthropy.

Like Bernie Sanders, he remained pro-labor all his life and more at ease with working people than with billionaires. He refused to own a Ford because Henry Ford was an anti-union anti-Semite whose cars Steinbeck thought inferior.

The greatest influence on Steinbeck’s thinking about politics was probably his first wife, Carol Henning, a progressive activist who suggested the title of The Grapes of Wrath. Together they supported the New Deal programs of President Franklin Roosevelt, whose First Lady became Steinbeck’s friend and ally. Like Bernie Sanders, however, Steinbeck had a wise way of not rejecting those who disagreed with him about party affiliation. He remained loyal to his Republican sisters, though he deeply disliked their fellow Californian Richard Nixon, and he despised William Randolph Hearst, the father of yellow journalism—the Fox News of American politics at the time. Steinbeck died in New York the month after Nixon was elected president in 1968. If Steinbeck and Bernie Sanders had met in the ’60s, unlikely but conceivable, they would have agreed about the movement for desegregation and voting rights and disagreed about the war in Vietnam, an issue that eventually got Steinbeck in trouble with his friends.

John Steinbeck, Franklin Roosevelt, and Adlai Stevenson

When Steinbeck’s enemies accused him of being Jewish because of his surname and his sympathies, he replied that he would be pleased if it were so. In reality his religious roots were Protestant, and he grew up in the Episcopal Church—the church of Franklin Roosevelt, a New York aristocrat of Dutch descent whom detractors also accused of being a Jew. Just as Steinbeck’s parents had supported the progressive policies of Teddy Roosevelt, FDR’s Republican cousin, Steinbeck advocated Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal as a way out of the pain and suffering caused by Wall Street in the Great Depression. When world war broke out the year The Grapes of Wrath was published, Steinbeck found himself blackballed by military bureaucrats in Washington and abused by his local draft board. Despite his support for FDR and the fight against Fascism, he questioned the government’s internment of Japanese-Americans and criticized pro-war propaganda created by New York ad men and Hollywood studio warriors. After showing courage under fire as an embedded newspaper correspondent on the Italian front, he was refused the award for valor that many thought he deserved. When he returned to the United States he said the worst thing about war was its dishonesty.

Despite his support for FDR and the fight against Fascism, he questioned the government’s internment of Japanese-Americans and criticized pro-war propaganda created by New York ad men and Hollywood studio warriors.

Doubts about the Cold War, plus Eleanor Roosevelt’s endorsement, motivated John Steinbeck to support Adlai Stevenson over Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. Stevenson’s cool intelligence and firm grip on fact-based reality appealed to Steinbeck’s intellect, which he developed by dialogue and research. The same traits made Stevenson a target of Cold Warriors from both parties connected to what Eisenhower later called out as the military-industrial complex in his last State of the Union address. Stevenson was an independent-minded politician with a consistent message, an activist following, and an aversion to the kind of character assassination used against him when he ran for president. Like Franklin Roosevelt and Bernie Sanders, he was John Steinbeck’s idea of an authentic progressive.

Adlai Stevenson was an independent-minded politician with a consistent message, an activist following, and an aversion to the kind of character assassination used against him when he ran for president. Like Franklin Roosevelt and Bernie Sanders, he was John Steinbeck’s idea of an authentic progressive.

Along with Eleanor Roosevelt, Steinbeck encouraged Stevenson to run again in 1960 before shifting his support to John Kennedy. After the election Stevenson and Steinbeck grew close, closer than Steinbeck ever was to Franklin Roosevelt. Like Bernie Sanders, Stevenson had a scientific, secular worldview that attracted Steinbeck but invited opponents to characterize Stevenson as an egghead who was unqualified to be president because he read books and liked culture. Steinbeck, who wrote long books, shared Stevenson’s enthusiasm for music and reading. Cool Bach was playing in the background as Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath. So was the edgy music of Igor Stravinsky, a Russian refugee with a wild, insistent sound more like Bernie Sanders than Bach or Adlai Stevenson.

But Couldn’t John Steinbeck Be for Hillary Clinton?

Answer: If Bernie Sanders weren’t running, yes, but with reservations. Here’s why.

John Steinbeck’s third wife was a Texas friend of Lady Bird Johnson, and the Steinbecks were White House guests when LBJ needed help with the intellectuals he thought Steinbeck, like Stevenson, represented. It’s easy enough to imagine Elaine Steinbeck, the first non-male stage manager in Broadway history, favoring a female candidate for president today. But the influence she exerted turned out badly for her husband in the 1960s. Steinbeck’s sense of loyalty to the Johnsons led him to get the Vietnam War very wrong, despite the lesson he learned in World War II. He kept his mouth shut in public after touring Southeast Asia at Johnson’s urging. In private he confessed that the government had no business interfering in the civil war of a country that hadn’t attacked America.

Today John Steinbeck would be for Bernie Sanders, the no-nonsense New Englander with a consistent record on everything that mattered most to Steinbeck: social justice, individual integrity, and saving the people and the planet Steinbeck celebrated in The Grapes of Wrath.

If he’d lived, Steinbeck would have opposed the Bush-Cheney wars for the same reason—plus the deceit and dishonesty used to justify the invasion of Iraq. At the time, Bernie Sanders joined Barack Obama in opposing the Iraq war from the floor of the U.S. Senate. Like a Cold War Democrat in the days of Lyndon Johnson, however, Senator Clinton went along with the crowd and voted yes. Steinbeck paid dearly, in reputation and in conscience, for following the White House line on Vietnam, despite his distrust of Wall Street and warmongering and his understanding of their connection. Given that experience, he’d distrust Clinton—for her Wall Street friends as much as for her flip-flopping on Iraq. In 2008 Steinbeck would have supported Obama—an egghead from Illinois, like Adlai Stevenson—and rejoiced in the result. Today he’d be for Bernie Sanders, the no-nonsense New Englander with a consistent record on everything that mattered most to Steinbeck: social justice, individual integrity, and saving the people and the planet Steinbeck celebrated in The Grapes of Wrath.

The Scottish Lord and Pearl Harbor—Winston Churchill’s Protected Spy: A True Story

Image of Winston Churchill mug

A Story of Betrayal in John Steinbeck’s Time

Winston Churchill’s mug? Odd connections to John Steinbeck’s life continue to appear at SteinbeckNow.com, thanks to authors like John Bell Smithback, a Far East expert and former resident of the neighborhood in Pacific Grove, California, where Sea of Cortez was written in 1941. His true story of the spy who contributed to the attack on Pearl Harbor—the 200th post since SteinbeckNow.com started—combines compelling narrative, imaginative investigation, and a streak of ornery independence, features that appeal to our readers and attract web surfers to John Steinbeck. Who knew that Winston Churchill colluded, through his silence, with a high-ranking Scottish spy to provide Franklin Roosevelt a reason to join Britain’s war with Germany? The true story begins in the spring of 1941, as Steinbeck sat writing Sea of Cortez while his marriage collapsed, Europe fell, and Japanese aggression threatened the Far East. On December 7, within days of the book’s publication, Japan attacked America at Pearl Harbor and Franklin Roosevelt declared war, as Winston Churchill had every reason to hope. Pearl Harbor swamped Sea of Cortez, which as John Steinbeck predicted it would, sold poorly. Blackballed from receiving a military commission by brass in Franklin Roosevelt’s war office, Steinbeck—remarried and living in New York in 1943—enlisted as a foreign war correspondent for American newspapers, reporting first from England, then from North Africa and Italy. In London he got leads and told stories other reporters overlooked. Did he hear rumors of a high-ranking spy in Winston Churchill’s government? “Certain people could not be criticized or even questioned,” he wrote years later in Once There Was a War, a collection of his World War II correspondence: “It is in the things not mentioned that the untruth lies.”—Ed.

Cover image of the first edition of Sea of Cortez

Watching Churchill’s Funeral: An Incident in Pacific Grove

“Ambition, not so much for vulgar ends, but for fame, glints in every mind.”

                                                                     Winston Churchill, The Second World War

John Steinbeck lived just around the corner. He was on Eardley Avenue and I was on Laurel. Of course, we lived there at different times—so different, in fact, that it might be said we inhabited Pacific Grove in different eras. When John was there in the spring of 1941, he and Ed Ricketts were working on Sea of Cortez and World War II was underway. Most of Europe was occupied by German forces, and Hitler had begun his invasion of the Soviet Union. General Rommel’s Desert Afrika Korps had taken Benghazi, President Franklin Roosevelt announced that he’d run for a third term, and the Japanese looked more and more menacing in the Far East. Glenn Miller’s Chattanooga Choo Choo would be playing on John Steinbeck’s radio, and Cheerios had just been invented.

During my time in Pacific Grove, Lyndon B. Johnson was President, Martin Luther King was leading the march from Selma to Montgomery, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Norman Mailer, and Norman Thomas were holding a teach-in in Berkeley to protest Johnson’s war in Vietnam, and a publication put out by the John Birch Society claimed that Negroes in America were better off than ever because of the good will of whites. The Byrds were singing Mr. Tambourine Man and television had replaced radio.

It’s January 30, 1965, and outside my door I notice a small woman moving back and forth with uncertainty. She studies my house, bends forward to read my address, then moves on. I turn on my television and find there is wall-to-wall coverage of Winston Churchill’s funeral. A barge with his coffin is moving slowly up the Thames past Tower Bridge, and the event is being described as one of the most moving tributes in modern history.

John Steinbeck lived just around the corner. He was on Eardley Avenue and I was on Laurel.

It’s at that moment that my doorbell rings and I open the door to find a frail and  bewildered woman standing there. She’s the same one I’d seen earlier, and she says she’s visiting from England. She’s lost, she exclaims, and says she can’t seem to find her family’s house. I ask the address and assure her the house she’s looking for is nearby, just around the corner and down the block. She’s obviously exhausted so I open the door and invite her in, offering her a cup of tea and a chance to rest. “Winston Churchill’s funeral is on television, live and direct from London,” I say. “Come in and watch, and then I’ll drive you home.”

She stiffens and makes a disagreeable face. “Young man,” she scowls, “those of us who lived through the horrible days of the war owe everything to that great man. We stood alone, and his speech about fighting the Germans on the beaches strengthened us and led us through those terrible times. Even now, I can remember listening to his words on the wireless, and no thank you, I will not come in. I wouldn’t think of watching Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral on American television!”

Such determination. And such a mistake. The truth is that few of Churchill’s speeches were broadcast during World War II: they were spoken in the House of Commons at Westminster to members of Parliament. Only after the warin some cases, nine years after itsensing the historical, political, and financial gains to be had, did Churchill record them in a studio for posterity. It wasn’t the first time the public had been duped into believing what Winston Churchill wanted history to believe.  A true-story timeline of his long career would be made up of an unbroken series of serious errors, horrendous blunders, and Machiavellian maneuvers made to cover his many mistakes and further his vast ambitions.

Image of Winston Churchill V-ing for victory

Churchill the Manipulator, Wrong About Almost Everything

Several years ago the late Christopher Hitchens wrote a revisionist version of Churchillian history for The Atlantic magazine, describing Winston Churchill as “ruthless, boorish, manipulative, alcoholic, myopic, and wrong about almost everything” and noting that Churchill himself admitted he “never stood so high upon a principle that he could not lower it to suit the circumstances.” And lower it he did. So far, in fact, that had anyone else been Prime Minister when World War II ended, Winston Churchill—a Tory turned out of office by a Labor Party sweep—would in all likelihood have been arrested and tried for high treason.

Churchill was a master manipulator—ignoring the truth, bungling the facts, and rearranging historical events to enhance his deeply flawed role in a political career spanning nearly half a century. In his Atlantic article, Hitchens short-listed the worst mistakes, misdeeds, and deceptions and explained Churchill’s method: “A sort of alternate bookkeeping was undertaken, whereby the huge deficits of his grand story (Gallipoli, the calamitous return to the gold standard, his ruling-class thuggery against the labor movement, his diehard imperialism over India, and his pre-war sympathy for fascism) were kept in a separate column that was sharply ruled off from ‘The Valiant Years.'”

While the calculatedly slow release of official papers of the British government has helped Hitchens write Winston Churchill down, neither Hitchens nor anyone else to my knowledge exposed two acts of calculated treachery that facilitated Japanese imperial aggressions in the Far East, a deceit designed to drag the United States into World War II and give Franklin Roosevelt the justification needed to overcome domestic resistance. The first involved a Scottish lord, the second a slow-moving steamship.

Image of the Scottish lord, William Francis Forbes-Sempill

Churchill’s Spy, At Work For Japan

The Scotsman was a hereditary member of the British House of Lords named William Forbes-Sempill, the 19th Baronet of Craigievar. A decorated Royal Flying Corps pilot in World War I, Sempill transferred to the Royal Navy Air Service when World War I ended in 1918. In 1921, the Imperial Japanese Navy requested England’s help in setting up its nascent naval air service. In the hope of negotiating a number of lucrative arms deals, the British Admiralty appointed Sempill to lead the government’s advisory delegation to Tokyo.

When he left for Japan, Sempill took with him the plans for two new British aircraft carriers, the HMS Argus and the HMS Hermes. Once he arrived, he proceeded to persuade the Japanese of the advantage of basing naval warplanes on ocean-going carriers instead of on airfields. Sempill was so pleased with his success in convincing the Japanese that he remained in Japan for 18 months, training pilots in techniques of flight control and shallow-water torpedo bombing—skills that 20 years later the Japanese Empire was to employ to disastrous advantage in attacking the United States fleet at Pearl Harbor.

Acknowledging Sempill’s “epoch-making service” to the Empire, Prime Minister Tomosaburo Kato awarded the Scottish lord Japan’s highest honor, the Order of the Rising Sun, “for his especially meritorious military service.”  Sempill faithfully returned the favor: for the next two decades he was paid to provide the Japanese with secret information on the latest British aviation technology, helping Japan become a world-class naval power. It was only when Franklin Roosevelt’s administration raised concern over Japan’s growing naval strength that the British government questioned Sempill about leaking secrets to Tokyo. A resulting investigation revealed that Sempill was an active member of several far-right, anti-Semitic organizations in England, including the fascistic Anglo-German Fellowship, a secretive group dedicated to ridding the Tory Party of Jews.

Image of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor

The House of Windsor’s High Hopes for Germany

But Sempill wasn’t the only member of England’s establishment elite who embraced fascist ideology. The most famous—Sir Oswald Mosley, the 6th Baronet of Ascoats—founded the British Union of Fascists, and its activities received positive press from London’s Daily Mirror newspaper owned by the billionaire Lord Rothsmere, a Viscount. As Hitler rose to power in Germany, Mosley’s organization attracted dozens of viscounts and dukes, earls and barons, and a wide assortment of Lords and Ladies of the realm who were sympathetic to fascism and opposed to the rising Labor Party.

Even the Royal House of Windsor—formerly the German House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha—contained ardent supporters of Hitler’s cause. Until being forced to renounce his throne “for the woman I love,” Edward VIII, later Duke of Windsor, maintained such friendly relations with the Nazis that Albert Speer, Hitler’s arms minister, lamented his abdication: “I am certain that through him, permanent friendly relations could have been achieved. If he had stayed, everything would have been different. His abdication was a severe loss.” Two years after the outbreak of World War II, the disgraced Duke of Windsor and his American wife were living in neutral Portugal, where they met with Hitler’s representatives to negotiate a Nazi-sponsored return to the British throne. The twice-divorced Duchess stated that she would become Queen of England “at any price.”

Sempill wasn’t the only member of England’s establishment elite who embraced fascist ideology.

In Britain, the appeasement policy of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had been quietly encouraged by members of the House of Windsor who feared Britain’s involvement in the war would spell the loss of the British colonial empire. When the Duke of Windsor’s brother became King George VI, his Queen was heard to say she’d be happy enough if the Nazis invaded—”as long as they kept the royal family.”

For a time, neighboring Norway (the unnamed nation in John Steinbeck’s The Moon Is Down) entertained hopes that an arrangement with Hitler to remain neutral would keep the Nazis at bay and the monarchy intact. But when Norwegian royalty and the entire Norwegian cabinet suddenly showed up on England’s shores as refugees, barely escaping the Nazi occupation, Neville Chamberlain finally submitted his resignation to Buckingham Palace. The date was May 10, 1940, and at the pleasure of the King on England, the First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Spencer Churchill was instated as Prime Minister.

Image of President Franklin Roosevelt

Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt’s Fateful Atlantic Meeting

As Winston Churchill prepared to move into No. 10 Downing Street, he was handed a document from the war government’s new Bletchley Park Code and Deciphering Unit. The report showed that Sempill was still receiving payments, funneled through the Mitsubishi Corporation, to spy for the government of Japan from his position in the Admiralty office. For reasons of his own, Churchill chose to ignore the evidence and Sempill kept his post at Admiralty, where he continued to have unlimited access to sensitive information about military hardware and official secrets.

Though nearly all of the intelligence files on Sempill’s subsequent activities mysteriously  disappeared, surviving records show that he traveled with Churchill to meet with Franklin Roosevelt at the Atlantic Conference, held in Newfoundland in August of 1941. Four months earlier, a Gallop Poll indicated that three-quarters of Americans would support joining England’s war, but only if they believed there was no other way to defeat Germany. Bolstered by the poll, Roosevelt sent his close friend and special adviser, Harry Hopkins, to deliver a private message to Winston Churchill in London: “The President is determined that we shall win this war together. Make no mistake about it: he has sent me here to tell you that at all costs and by all means he will carry you through.”

At the Atlantic Conference, however, Roosevelt reminded Churchill that the 1937 Neutrality Act enacted by Congress prevented direct intervention, and that the strong isolationist element in Washington still tied his hands.  America First, a conservative anti-war movement formed after 1919, persuaded many citizens that enough American blood had already been shed in Europe, and the sentiment was shared by progressives within the President’s own party, many of them isolationists who expressed disappointment that Europe was “acting so tribal” and seemed unable to attend to its own affairs. A Republican Senator, Robert Taft, the son of a former President, spelled it out bluntly: “Even the collapse of England is to be preferred to the participation for the rest of our lives in European wars. If we enter the war today to save England, we will be involved in her wars the rest of our lives.”

Though details of what transpired at the Atlantic Conference remain cloudy at best, we know that two weeks before the meeting Franklin Roosevelt had closed the Panama Canal to Japanese traffic; and in retaliation for the Japanese occupation of French Indo-China, he ordered the seizure of Japanese assets in the United States. The governments of Britain and the Dutch East Indies quickly followed suit, with the result that, virtually overnight, Japan was deprived of 88 percent of its imported oil supply.

We also know Roosevelt again reminded Churchill  that because of the Neutrality Act, the U.S. could only offer a token contribution to the British war effort.

“At least for now,” Roosevelt said.

“Unless,” Churchill asserted, “you are attacked.”

Roosevelt agreed: “Unless we are attacked first.”

And if that attack on America came from Japan? At Guam or Wake Island? Or in the Philippines, or even Pearl Harbor? Would the United States concentrate its forces in the Pacific rather than in Europe? In other words, when could England count on America’s attention?

Franklin Roosevelt, a New York patrician of Dutch-English descent, reassured Winston Churchill—the son of an American mother—that the United States was “with him all the way.” In the event of such an attack, America would throw her full weight behind Britain to defeat Germany and liberate Europe. Until then, fighting a war in the Pacific would be put on hold.

Churchill had cause to press his point: he knew that in a matter of months—even weeks—the United States would, somewhere in the Pacific, be attacked by Japan. Even Roosevelt knew something ominous was transpiring, for at that very moment all Japanese merchant vessels were being called home, presumably in preparation to transport troops and war material to points in the Far East targeted in Japan’s invasion plans.

But Churchill had other, more personal reasons for bringing Sempill to the meeting with Roosevelt. In the first instance, Sempill’s paymasters in Tokyo would learn that Roosevelt was giving them a considerable period of grace—as long as two or even three years—in which to solidify their gains. And secondly, Sempill’s boss, Winston Churchill, knew he would need a scapegoat for what was about to happen to Britain’s colonies in the Far East. It was, after all, a matter of political preservation, for at that point only he knew about the capture of the English steamship, the SS Automedon . . . .

Image of the SS Automedon

The SS Automedon: The Ship That Launched a Thousand Lies and Would Lead to the Death of Millions in the War

Within five days of the Atlantic Conference, Bletchley Park experts decoded a series of messages to Tokyo from the Japanese embassy in London containing nearly word for word the conversations that had occurred between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill aboard the USS Augusta and the HMS Prince of Wales off the coast of Newfoundland. When Churchill read the transcript, he acknowledged it was “pretty accurate stuff,” then signaled for Sempill’s removal: “Clear him out while there is still time.”

Called before the Chief of Naval Air Services, Sempill received an ultimatum: quit or get sacked. Before Sempill could clear his desk, however, Churchill reversed his order to fire the spy. “I had not contemplated Lord Sempill being required to resign his commission,” he explained, “only that he be assigned elsewhere in the Admiralty.”

The story of the SS Automedon had yet to be disclosed. Best to keep a first-class spy like Sempill close at hand for a future bailout.

Best to keep a first-class spy like Sempill close at hand for a future bailout.

Outside John Steinbeck’s cottage beneath the oaks on Eardley Avenue, scrub jays call to one another in the trees, the California sun is warming the fragrant pines, and the monarch butterflies are making their annual pilgrimage to Pacific Grove. The writer has learned that The Grapes of Wrath has been awarded the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the controversial novel selling more than 430,000 copies, and Viking Press had ordered another printing. Steinbeck is spending his mornings working on a new book, one he and Ed Ricketts will call Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journey of Travel and Research.

But John Steinbeck doesn’t appear happy. There is a melancholy air about him as he makes manuscript corrections, sips a beer, and listens to Tommy Dorsey’s I’ll Never Smile Again on the radio. War clouds hover figuratively over his narrative of adventure and discovery, co-authored with Ricketts. Though Steinbeck’s wife Carol accompanied them on the expedition, he has just written her out of the book. Very soon he will write her out of his life.

John Steinbeck doesn’t appear happy. There is a melancholy air about him as he makes manuscript corrections.

Under a lead-colored sky in a more somber part of the world, a merchant ship flying the British ensign leaves the port of Liverpool bound for the tropical waters of Singapore. Hugging the coastline to avoid detection by German submarines, the slow-moving vessel eventually steams around the Horn of Africa into the relative safety of the Indian Ocean. Three days later, making its way east through calm seas, the SS Automedon is detected by a German military ship, the Atlantis—part of a fleet of surface raiders known as “ghost ships” that seek out and destroy merchant vessels carrying cargo to the Far East.

During a short encounter, the wireless operator aboard the Automedon has time to send a distress call that is picked up by two nearby merchant ships flying the British flag. They immediately send coded messages detailing the incident to naval listening stations in Singapore and Durban, South Africa. In turn, both stations relay word of the ship’s imminent capture to London. Overwhelming evidence indicates that British military authorities at the highest level are made fully aware of the Automedon’s fate.

At the scene of the encounter, a  boarding party from the German ship finds the Automedon’s captain dead at the helm. A report filed by the leader, First Lieutenant Ulrich Mohr, states that “the ship proved to be unarmed and the crew gave up without a struggle. Unobstructed, we got to work on the strong room where we found fifteen bags of secret mail, including one hundredweight of decoding tables, fleet orders, gunnery instructions, and various British Naval Intelligence reports, including all the top-secret post en route for the Far Eastern Command, Singapore.”

Included in the haul is a complete set of Royal Navy fleet ciphers, New Merchant Navy ciphers scheduled to become valid in two months, a wealth of British Admiralty shipping and intelligence summaries, and several green bags containing 6,000,000 freshly minted New Straits Singapore dollars.

Lieutenant Mohr’s report continues: “Our search of the Chart Room brought us far greater rewards. Our real prize was a long narrow envelope enclosed in a green bag marked HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL – SAFE HANDS – TO BE DESTROYED. It was addressed to the Commander in Chief, Far East, with the words TO BE OPENED PERSONALLY. It was equipped with brass eyelets to let water in to facilitate its sinking should it prove necessary to dispose of it at sea.”

Under a lead-colored sky in a more somber part of the world, a merchant ship flying the British ensign leaves the port of Liverpool.

The money, the reports, the codes, the intelligence reports, the green bags, the crew—the entire haul—was taken aboard the Atlantis. Then, stripped of its information and valuables, the Automedon is dispatched to the bottom of the Indian Ocean by German explosives. As the captain of the Atlantis sorts through the haul, he realizes that he’s looking at a mountain of intelligence information—a cache so vast, so significant, that he aborted his raiding mission and turned his ship to Truk Island, the nearest safe port in the Japanese-mandated island group.

There he transferred the secret documents and surviving crew of the Automedon onto a captured Norwegian tanker that was leaving for Kobe, Japan with 10,000 tons of aviation gasoline. As evening fell over Japan on December 5, 1940, the haul from the Automedon arrived at the German Embassy in Tokyo.

Over the next three days, Admiral Paul Wenneker, a German naval attaché, carefully photographs the codes and Chief of Staff reports taken from the Automedon before turning the haul over to a fellow officer, Captain Paul Karmenz, for delivery to Berlin. Karmenz went first to Vladivostok in Russia—for the moment a neutral nation—then crossed Russia  by train, traveling day and night on his urgent mission.

If there was  trouble, Admiral Wanneker planned to send a four-part coded telegram to Naval Command Headquarters in Berlin summarizing each of the captured reports. But the plan wouldn’t be needed. Safely delivered and deciphered, the messages were circulated among the Nazi top brass, and on December 12, under orders from Hitler, the Japanese naval attaché in Berlin was summoned to German Naval Command Headquarters. When he arrived, Captain Yokai was  shown a copy of Wanneker’s summary which he immediately relayed to his superiors in Tokyo.

Yokai’s message to Tokyo was intercepted by an American listening station in the Pacific, probably on Guam or in Hawaii, where it was to sit in someone’s in-basket. It wasn’t to be deciphered until August 19, 1945, four days after Japan surrendered.

Image of Adolph Hitler

The German-Japanese Connection in the Wartime Far East

But in Tokyo, things were moving considerably faster. On December 12, Admiral Wanneker presented copies of the report to the Japanese Naval Chief  of General Staff, Vice Admiral Kondo. The Admiral read the contents and shrugged. “These codes and position documents,” he remarked, “they have been allowed to fall into our hands to mislead both the Germans and the Japanese governments. This, of course, is a deception.”

“I doubt that emphatically,” replied Wanneker. “The Automedon was an unarmed merchant vessel whose captain was killed outright in our initial shelling. To a man, the crew surrendered without a fight, and upon boarding her First Lieutenant Mohr went directly to the captain’s quarters, where he found the sealed bags containing these documents. No, this is hardly a deception. The plain truth is that the ship’s encounter with the Atlantis was too short and swift to afford anyone an opportunity to destroy them.”

To make his point, Wanneker showed Kondo photographs of the green bag and a copy of the SAFE HANDS report that was to be handed over personally to the Far East Commander-in-Chief.

“This information is marked to the personal attention of Air Marshal Robert Brooke-Popham,” Wanneker adds, “And what we have here is an intimate view inside the British War Cabinet. These, Admiral, are the full minutes of the Cabinet’s meeting of 8 August 1940, a meeting in which a complete assessment of the Far East situation was presented. Included in it is a highly confidential Chief-of-Staff report on the defense of Hong Kong, Singapore, and the Far East with respect to their defenses against any Japanese attack.”

Kondo was silent, perhaps overwhelmed. “So,” he said slowly, clicking his heels sharply and bowing generously to Wanneker. “So, these are the minutes of the British War Cabinet, with their diplomatic and naval codes.” He whispered as if only half-believing his eyes and ears: “And, of course, full information on the defense of Hong Kong and Singapore.”

“Perhaps I can remind you, Admiral,” Wanneker said, giving weight to his words, “that it was Herr Hitler himself who directed that this information be shared with you.”

“Certainly, Admiral. I assure you that this material shall be given careful scrutiny. And you must extend Japan’s gratitude to your Führer,” replied Kendo, clicking his heels and making his exit.

Image of the bombing of Britain

The London Blitz and Japan’s Good Fortune

Three years earlier, Konto had been part of the military coalition that swept out the civilian cabinet in Tokyo and took control of the government, making Japan a military dictatorship much like Nazi Germany. Within five months, the coalition had put together a war plan and, on July 7, 1937—in the dead of night and without warning—Japanese troops launched an undeclared war against China.

As the coalition had surmised, the Chinese would be no match, and by 1940 Japan controlled every important city in China. There was only one exception, and that was the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong. Putting one boot across the border would, the invaders realized, incur the wrath and power of the British Empire. Instead, Japan turned its attention to nearby Siam (today’s Thailand), where by diplomacy and threat it established a large naval base and built a number of military airstrips.

Then, quite unexpectedly, on June 22, 1940 France surrendered to Germany and Nazi troops occupied Paris. Seizing the opportunity, Japan presented an audacious request to the collaborationist Vichy government: “As Germany’s ally, we demand that France relinquish immediate control of all its colonial possessions in French Indo-China.” When a positive reply was forthcoming, Japan’s military leaders made preparations to take over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

Putting one boot across the border would, the invaders realized, incur the wrath and power of the British Empire.

Back in England, Winston Churchill had just become Prime Minister, and as war raged across Europe, Japan’s expansionist policies began to encroach on Great Britain’s Far East possessions. Directing his War Cabinet to evaluate the situation with respect to Hong Kong, Malaya (Malaysia), and Singapore, Churchill wanted to know the size of the fleet that would be required to safeguard England’s Far East outposts in the event of war with Japan. Referring to a study made a year earlier, it was determined that the minimum needed to meet Japanese aggression would be a flotilla of 10 battleships and two battle cruisers, plus several cruisers and escort destroyers. It might even be necessary as well to send an aircraft carrier or two—an action requiring 70 days or more.

As if by chance, the German Luftwaffe chose that same moment to send 348 bombers and 617 fighter planes across the channel to bomb England. The first raid would last two hours, followed by a second, then by a third wave of bombers. They came by daylight, they came at night, and the bombing of England continued for 57 days. Homes vanished, factories were destroyed, cathedrals burned. Entire cities were devastated.

Back in England, Winston Churchill had just become Prime Minister.

In Berlin, Hitler issued Directive #16 setting in motion preparations for Operation Sea Lion, the Nazi plan for an event unprecedented since the Spanish Armada—a military invasion of the British Isles by sea. “As England still shows no signs of willingness to come to terms,” Hitler explained, “I have decided to prepare and, if necessary, to carry out a landing operation against her. The aim of this operation is to eliminate the English Motherland as a base from which the war against Germany can be continued.”

Meanwhile, urgent pleas were arriving in London from the Governors of Singapore and Hong Kong: “Where are the promised troops? Where are the promised ships? Where are the promised aeroplanes of the RAF?’’ The governments of Australia and New Zealand were asking the same questions.

In response, Winston Churchill convened his top advisers, ordering the British Chiefs of Staff to update their earlier estimates about the size of the fleet needed to protect Hong Kong and Singapore. The new report, 87 pages long, was gloomier than anyone could have imagined: Britain was in no position to resort to war if Japan attacked Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, or the Dutch East Indies. The Far East was indefensible, and without the active involvement of the United States, Britain’s remaining colonies were doomed. In the event of a Japanese attack, the Prime Minister was advised, Britain must make concessions and adapt a delaying strategy.

Churchill’s reaction was to dispatch a copy of the report to his newly-appointed Commander-in-Chief of the British Far Eastern Command. It was a new command, making Air Marshal Robert Brooke-Popham responsible for all defense matters in Singapore, Malaya, Burma, and Hong Kong. In the interest of secrecy, Churchill’s decision was to hand the bag containing the full diplomatic report over to the captain of the S.S. Automedon for delivery.

Britain was in no position to resort to war if Japan attacked Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, or the Dutch East Indies.

Six thousand miles away in Tokyo, a military committee called the Council for the Conduct of the War poured over the intelligence report drawn up after careful review of the documents captured by the Germans from the Automedon. Captain Yamaguchi Bujiro (Head of 5th Intelligence Section, dealing with the U.SA.) and Captain Horiuchi Shigetada (Head of 8th Intelligence Section, dealing with Britain and India) offered this prediction to the Japanese General Staff: “Even if Japan sends forces into Indo-China or beyond, Britain will not go to war.”

The Council then sent the following message to Naval Marshal Admiral Yamamoto: “In the event it is decided to go to war in Southeast Asia, to neutralize the United States Pacific Fleet it is imperative that you begin drawing up plans to attack Pearl Harbor.”

On November 26, 1941, a Japanese attack force consisting of six aircraft carriers, nine destroyers, two battleships, two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and three submarines left Iturop Island in the Kurils northeast of Japan and began the 3,000-mile journey across the Pacific Ocean to its American target.

Image of the attack on Pearl Harbor

Before Pearl Harbor: The Great British Double-Cross

Within a week of the Atlantic Conference, a joint Army-Navy board in Washington had presented the results of an ongoing study to the White House: in the event of War Plan Orange (war with Japan), the Philippines could not be defended and would have to be yielded by default. The following day, Roosevelt signed a bill permitting the Army to keep men currently in service for an additional 18 months. Then, perhaps on a hunch, he ordered four of the seven aircraft carriers out of Pearl Harbor, along with a number of cruisers and destroyer escort vessels, three battleships, and 21 tenders, fuel ships, and minesweepers. The carriers left at Pearl Harbor were to be assigned missions away from Hawaii.

After Churchill’s meeting with Roosevelt, British ships loaded with Hurricane fighters en route to Singapore were abruptly ordered to change course. The planes promised to Singapore were dispatched to Libya instead. Experienced troops in Malaya and Singapore—the men best prepared to defend the Peninsula and save it from Japanese conquest—were put aboard ships and diverted to India, the Crown Jewel of the dissolving British Empire.

Churchill’s earlier authorization to send a fleet of fast torpedo boats to defend Singapore was similarly rescinded. In Hong Kong, Royal Air Force combat planes were ordered out and dispersed to Burma and India. Munitions and supplies from Canada meant for Hong Kong’s defense were inexplicably sidetracked to the Philippines, and the Bank of Hong Kong, which printed and controlled the colony’s currency, was spirited out of the colony. Additionally, every ranking government official in Hong Kong—from the Governor down to the Director of Public Works—was abruptly recalled to England or transferred to a safer location. Next, nearly all merchant and naval ships received orders to leave the harbors of Singapore and Hong Kong—immediately.

After Churchill’s meeting with Roosevelt, British ships loaded with Hurricane fighters en route to Singapore were abruptly ordered to change course.

Sometime between the hours of 2:30 and 3:00 the morning of December 7, at the very moment the fleet of merchant ships was hurrying out of Hong Kong harbor,  Madame Sun Yet-Sen, widow of the Republic of China’s first president, plus the head of the London Times Newspaper Bureau and a number of other notables who had been visiting Hong Kong, were hurriedly piling their luggage outside their doors at the Hong Kong Hotel and desperately summoning help to get them and their luggage to a ship that was waiting in the harbor. When someone asked them why they were leaving in such a mad rush, they replied that he “had to be a dumb mutt not to know that the Japanese were going to attack Hong Kong at any moment.” Madame Sun Yet-Sen and the rest of the visitors got clean away; the “dumb mutt” didn’t.  Like thousands upon thousands of others, he was to spend the next 3 years and 8 months being starved and beaten by Japanese guards behind barbed wire in a prisoner of war camp.

Clearly, the man behind the desk at No. 10 Downing Street knew not only what was about to happen in Hong Kong but when, and he was making last-minute adjustments.

Clearly, the man behind the desk at No. 10 Downing Street knew not only what was about to happen in Hong Kong but when, and he was making last-minute adjustments.

When the attack came, the defense of Hong Kong was left to a volunteer militia comprised of civilian businessmen, lawyers, merchants, bankers, and other professionals armed with pistols and World War I rifles. Canada, which had been asked to provide support troops, had responded by sending two battalions of fresh recruits–the Royal Rifles from Quebec and the Winnipeg Grenadiers—that had been training in the cool autumn climate of Newfoundland. Through a bureaucratic blunder, the young soldiers arrived in Hong Kong while their baggage and gear was sidetracked to Manila in the Philippines. They had disembarked in the tropical heat wearing their woolen winter uniforms, and nearly all of them were seasick. Three days later, the bombs fell. They were at war.

From London, Winston Churchill took to the airwaves to warn the military planners in Japan that, though under constant attack from the Germans, England had no intention of abandoning “one single centimeter of soil” in the Far East. As a consequence of its aggression, he said, Japan would have to reckon with the fearsome might of Great Britain. As proof, he said he’d already dispatched two of Britain’s newest, fastest, and virtually unsinkable battleships, the HMS Prince of Wales and the HMS Repulse, to the region.

On the third day of the war, the two major battleships were quickly and almost effortlessly sent to the bottom of the South China Sea by a squadron of Japanese torpedo bombers.

Image of John Steinbeck

The Cost Of the War John Steinbeck Called Dishonest

In Pacific Grove, it would have been 10:55 a.m. on Sunday. Monarch butterflies clustered on the trunks of the pines, and from the shore came the sound of the surf rolling over rocks on the beach at the foot of Eardley Avenue. Gulls screeched, sea lions barked, and the noise of fishing boats returning from their morning sardine run came from Monterey Bay. In the distance, hawks soared in wide circles seeking thermals above Jack’s Peak, and as it was a day of rest, Cannery Row was silent. It was December 7, 1941, and Japan had gone on the attack. Across the Pacific, Asia was on fire and Pearl Harbor was burning. Though he couldn’t have known it, John Steinbeck would soon be leaving the scents and the sounds of Pacific Grove for a very long time.

To a shocked world, Pearl Harbor would be universally described as a surprise attack, and for the next 44 months America and the world would be at war. Thanks to a Scottish lord, Winston Churchill, and the easy capture of a slow-moving steamship, these are the territories that would be swiftly occupied  by the Empire of the Rising Sun:

  • Hong Kong
  • British New Guinea
  • The Philippines
  • Guam
  • Dutch East Indies
  • Portuguese Timor
  • Malaya
  • Andaman and Nicobar Islands
  • Straits Settlements (Singapore)
  • Kingdom of Sarawak
  • Brunei
  • North Borneo
  • Nauru
  • Imphal
  • Wake Island
  • Gilbert and Ellice Islands
  • Christmas Islands
  • Attu and Kiska Islands

One year after the capture of the Automedon, the crew of the Atlantis would be invited to the Emperor’s Palace in Tokyo where Captain Rogge would be presented with a samurai sword by Emperor Hirohito. Only two other Germans had received such an honor: Field Marshal Hermann Goering, and Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox.

Franklin Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States, died while still in office, at Warm Springs, Georgia on April 12, 1945, age 63. The President from Hyde Park, New York was mourned by millions around the world.

Sir Winston Churchill, KG, OM, CH, TD, DL, FRS, RA, lived 20 years longer, passing away peacefully in his own bed in London, age 90, on January 24, 1965. His state funeral would be described as the largest in the world. In Britain, the Secrets Act protects official papers from public scrutiny for a period of thirty years. Before leaving office, Churchill locked his official and personal papers out of public reach for a period of 50 years after his death.

Churchill carried the secrets about Sempill and the Automedon to his grave, but during the terrible days that Singapore and Hong Kong were under attack, he issued these words to their doomed defenders: “There must be no thought of sparing the troops or population; commanders and senior officers should die with their troops. The honor of the British Empire and the British Army is at stake.”

The man in Singapore to whom the order was addressed, Air Marshal Robert Brooke-Popham, was in such a hurry to flee the burning island in the final days of its siege that he broke a leg scurrying down a ramp to board the speedboat that would take him to the safety of Australia. It was he, the Far East Commander-in-Chief, to whom Winston Churchill had sent the TOP SECRET, HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL documents. Via the SS Automedon.

Churchill carried the secrets about Sempill and the Automedon to his grave.

William Forbes-Sempill—19th Lord Sempill and Baronet of Craigevar, AFC, Third Class Commander in the Order of the Raising Sun (Japan)—died 11 months after the death of the Prime Minister who protected him, at his Craigevar Castle in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, at the age of 72.  Ten days following the outbreak of war in the Pacific, at the moment Hong Kong was on the verge of surrendering, Sempill was discovered making calls to the Japanese Embassy in London. The Admiralty asked him to retire immediately, and that time he did. Unfortunately, his ruling-class connections saved him from the hangman’s noose.

Most of the documents relating to Sempill’s spying activities, like a great many of Winston Churchill’s papers, have disappeared from government archives, as have those relating to the SS Automedon. The depth of one man’s treachery, and the collaboration of another, only came to partial light in 2002. But the following statistics suggest the scale of destruction caused by this forgotten man of history, and by the Prime Minister who protected him.

Casualties in the Pacific War numbered approximately 36,000,000, half of the total casualties of the Second World War.

The estimated number of civilian victims of Japanese democide is 20,365,000:

  • China12,392,000
  • Indochina1,500,000
  • Indonesia375,000
  • Dutch East Indies3,000,000
  • Malaya and Singapore283,000
  • Thailand60,000
  • Philippines500,000
  • Burma170,000
  • Pacific Islands57,000
  • Timor60,000

The number of POW deaths in Japanese captivity is estimated at 539,000:

  • Netherlands8,500
  • Britain12,433
  • Canada273
  • Philippines23,000
  • Australia7,412
  • New Zealand31
  • United States12,935

Out of 60,000 Indian Army POWs taken at the Fall of Singapore, 12,000 died in captivity.

Not long after the war ended, John Steinbeck issued his own statement about the war that he had reported on from London, North Africa, and Italy: “The crap I wrote overseas had a profoundly nauseating effect on me.  Among other unpleasant things, war is the most dishonest thing imaginable.”  One wonders if, in the course of his foreign travels, he had discovered the true story of treachery and deceit recorded here.

Kafka’s Ghost: A True Story

Composite image of Reinhard Heydrich and Franz Kafka

In light of the pro-war sentiments of political conservatives today, it’s important to remember that it was right-wing opposition to the Roosevelt administration that kept the United States on the sidelines as Hitler swept across Europe as the 1930s closed and World War II began. The true story of the Nazi horror lay ahead, but by time the Hitler annexed German-speaking Czechoslovakia in March 1939, the notion that nationalistic disputes could be settled diplomatically was already unraveling. Great Britain, France, Australia, and New Zealand declared war when Germany invaded Poland five months later. Within a short period the Nazis also seized Denmark and Norway. Belgium, France, and Luxembourg. The Netherlands soon surrendered without a struggle. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, America finally entered the conflict, two years after fighting in Europe had begun. 

The ultimate true-story horror—Hitler’s Final Solution of eradicating Europe’s Jews in Nazi death camps—lay ahead. Working for the intelligence and propaganda agency created by Roosevelt in preparation for war, John Steinbeck wrote his 1942 drama-novelette The Moon Is Down, a study of personalities and cultures brought into intimate conflict by the Nazi occupation of Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and France. “I began to know and to associate with escapees from the occupied nations,” Steinbeck explained. “They spent their agonized energy trying to help the underground organizations which kept a steady and heroic resistance to the occupying Germans. And I became fascinated with those organizations which refused to admit defeat, even when Germans patrolled their streets.”  

 When The Moon Is Down was written it’s unlikely Steinbeck knew about the soon-to-be notorious Nazi general named Reinhard Heydrich—Heinrich Himmler’s second in command—who was given control of the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA), the Frank Kafka-scale bureaucracy that coordinated the SS Security Service (SD), Secret State Police (Gestapo), Criminal Police (Kripo), and the Third Reich’s foreign intelligence service. In The Moon Is Down Steinbeck presents Colonel Lanser, the occupying Germans’ local leader, as a thoughtful, thorough man, vengeful and violent but hardly a psychopath. Like Steinbeck’s fictional character, the real-life Reinhard Heydrich was cultured—a violin virtuoso with a university degree. Unlike Lanser, however, Reinhard Heydrich was also a zealous ideologue whose enormous organization would terrorize the continent of Europe and conduct mass murder on a scale unprecedented in human history. John Steinbeck read and admired Franz Kafka, whose vision of psychopathic hell was acute, but even Steinbeck couldn’t imagine such evil until it really happened. What follows is the true story of Rienhard Heydrich, the Nazi general who was one of the principal architects of the Holocaust, as I learned it from a witness to the horror. 

Free men cannot start a war, but once it is started, they can fight on in defeat. Herd men, followers of a leader, cannot do that, and so it is always the herd men who win battles and the free men who win wars. . . . 

                    John Steinbeck, The Moon Is Down

Kafka’s Ghost

It’s said you can make a telephone ring simply by getting into a bathtub. I had just settled into the chilly water of mine when my bell sounded its double ring. It was Gregor, emerging from wherever he had been for the past many days.

“John, you have not been to the village. I have looked for you. What is wrong, John? You are not well?”

Gregor lived with his wife Ana in a two-story Mediterranean-style house halfway between my apartment and the village, but it was along a path I didn’t normally take. My apartment was at the highest point on the small fishing island of Cheung Chau, one hour from Hong Kong by ferry. As there were no roads and no cars on the island, to get anywhere at all we hiked the narrow paths that meandered up and down the steep hills. Like Swiss mountain goats, someone once said.

“Everything’s fine,” I answered, standing at my desk and dripping bathwater onto the tiled floor. “But this is pretty early in the morning for conversation, Gregor. I’m only awake because it’s so god-damned hot. And I’m sticky. My bed’s wet. And on top of that, I’m covered with mosquito bites. Call me later, Gregor. Maybe we can meet at Alan’s . . . .”

Alan’s was a café on the waterfront close to the ferry terminal. Gregor had taught me to play backgammon at one of the tables there after I’d come to the island. That had been thirteen or fourteen months earlier, soon after I’d arrived in Hong Kong to research the years of the Japanese occupation during WW II. I was working on a book.

Gregor and Ana had come to Hong Kong from Israel a year or so before me. He had a stipend from a Tel Aviv university to study Chinese, but the amount he received each month wasn’t nearly enough. To survive, Ana had taken a job teaching English at a private school in Causeway Bay, and five mornings a week she got up to catch an early ferry to Hong Kong.

“I have a telephone now,” Gregor said. “I wanted to give you the number.”

“That’s expensive,” I answered. “How much was the hook-up fee for that?”

“Not much.”

“But the deposit, that must have been pretty steep. I think it was a thousand Hong Kong dollars the last I heard. That’s what I paid to get mine.”

“No. No deposit. I don’t know how much it is.”

People came and people went in the colony, and no one knew more about that than the Hong Kong Telephone Company. Hence the stiff deposit, which was put away, without interest, until the service was terminated. I couldn’t imagine Gregor handing that kind of money over to them to get a phone. He and Ana simply didn’t have it.

“Here’s my number,” he said, “but you can only call me back today and tomorrow. Well, maybe you can call me the rest of the week too. I will have to let you know about that. Can you write the number down?”

“I’m at my desk, that’s where the telephone is. But you wouldn’t know that because you’ve never been up to my house, have you?”

“No, it’s too far in this heat. And it’s too close to the cemeteries,” he answered quickly. “It’s always better that you come down here to my house.”

“What’s your number?”

All Cheung Chau telephone numbers were only four digit ones so they were easy to remember. I wrote Gregor’s down on the back of an envelope.

“The old man died,” he said while I was writing.

“What old man?” I asked.

“The one upstairs. The old man that used to play Chinese opera all day and spit down on me from his balcony.”

“I don’t think he was spitting at you, Gregor. You said he was old and had trouble seeing.”

“He made terrible noises. He coughed and spit for an hour every morning. But I was always in bed when he spit. Maybe he spit on Ana though. She went to catch the ferry when he was still on his balcony spitting. I will ask her if he ever spit on her.”

“You’re making that up, Gregor. Where have you been? I’ve been back and forth to Hong Kong and I’ve been down to the village many times in the past week. I’ve been around, it’s you who hasn’t been in the village.”

“What time is it?” he asked.

I looked for my watch under the piles of papers on my desk, pages and pages of notes I had put first in a yellow legal pad and then tore off as I transferred the information to my typewriter.

“I’m looking for my watch,” I finally answered. “I sweat so much I don’t like wearing it to bed.” Then I found it. “Hell, I don’t know what time it is, Gregor. My watch has stopped. I guess the battery’s dead.”

“It’s the morning fog. And the humidity, maybe. The wetness is on everything,” he said. “My walls are wet, my floor is wet, everything is wet. But come down, John. Come down now and I will make you breakfast. I have coffee and I will go to the bakery before you come. What do you want with your coffee? Cake? Bread? I saw you eating yellow custard cakes at the Ho-Ho Bakery once. Do you like cakes like that? I will get two of them for you. Maybe I will get two custard cakes and two coconut ones. Come, we will have coffee and have some breakfast.”

Gregor spoke with a graceful Eastern European accent so my repeating what he said does not do justice to the way he said it, nor do my words convey the childlike excitement of his words, especially when he talked about food. Still, his desire for it had not distorted his shape. He wandered around the island wearing shorts and a T-shirt most of the time, and though he had a slightly rounded belly as befit his age, I didn’t think he looked overweight. I’m sure the scarcity of money in his pocket had much to do with that.

“John? Are you there, John?” he called out anxiously.

I exhaled loudly. “I’m here. I’m thinking,” I answered. “It might be awhile. I’m just getting up and I don’t feel awake. It’s too hot and muggy to sleep, and it’s too early to go anywhere. Maybe later, Gregor, but not now.”

It was mid-April, and it was already sultry and uncomfortable. Every morning that week a dense fog had covered the island, a fog so thick it was impossible to make out anything more than five meters away. In the days to come it would be getting even worse, and then we would have days and days of rain, followed by a long summer of stifling heat punctuated with a series of ever-worsening typhoons.

“Those documents I was telling you about,” Gregor said, not to be put off. “I want you to see them, John. I think you will be interested in looking at them,” he said. “They are from the time of the war. I think you will be surprised.”

“I don’t remember you telling me about any documents, Gregor. Why won’t they wait until later in the day?”

There was a long, brooding pause. “Of course they will wait. Ja, if you want, they will wait. They have waited all these years already. How many years? Almost thirty-five, I think. Or maybe forty.”

I picked up my watch. “Those old documents?” I asked, my curiosity piqued. “Are they about Hong Kong? Are they something I’ve been looking for? Something to do with the Japanese occupation here?”

His pause continued for several seconds, then: “No, John, they are about Europe. They are about the Jews. But maybe it doesn’t matter.” Another pause, then: “I guess these documents can wait.  If you want, they can wait.”

I shook my watch to see if I could get it to go. No luck. I was feeling a little impatient. “But anyway, Gregor, we can talk about those things later, don’t you think?”

“Yes, later, but I don’t think you can get to Hong Kong to do any research today. That’s why I called you. It’s the fog. Some of the ferries are not running,” he said.

“Well, that’s a good excuse for us to stay on the island then,” I answered. “And maybe a good excuse for me to go back to bed.”

I was suddenly jolted. A ship nearby sounded its horn, and it was so loud Gregor couldn’t help hearing it too, both over the telephone and at his house. There was a nanosecond delay and then I heard it coming back to me over the phone from his flat.

“I must keep these documents of mine wrapped secure in plastic and not let them get wet in the fog,” he said. “They are very valuable, but if you are not coming down I will put them away. They are very old. Old and valuable. No one else has ever seen them. That’s why I wanted you to look at them.  I wanted your opinion about them.”

I reached for my pipe and sat down. “Ah, hell, Gregor, give me a little time to wake up,” I told him. “I hardly slept a wink. I can’t sleep when it’s this humid. I’ll have another rinse and try to be down there in an hour or so. I need that much time to feel awake.”

Ach so, that is good. That is good, John,” he said, perking up. “I bought a small bag of ground coffee at the Mandarin Delicatessen yesterday.” I could almost see the delight in his eyes. “I will make you a strong cup of thick European coffee. We will drink it black. With sugar. In the Viennese way.” he said. “But first I will go to the Ho-Ho Bakery in the village and buy us two custards and two coconut cakes . . . .”

Then he hung up in the middle of his sentence and I stood with a dead telephone listening to the haunting whistles of the wind buoys in the harbor. He had persisted, I had resisted, and he’d won. That was usually the way it was, but as long as I understood that, it didn’t matter. For reasons best known to himself, he had very few friends. Perhaps he’d been serious when he told me that having six friends at one time was enough: one for each day of the week, and one day– Saturday—for himself.

Yet I found him interesting and I enjoyed exchanging thoughts and impressions as we sat at Alan’s Café drinking coffee and watching the panoply of the village pass by on the waterfront. He was in Asia studying languages, specifically Chinese dialects. He had old shoe boxes piled high, each one filled to capacity with four-by-five-inch cards, everything indexed and cross-indexed.

There were more than forty dialects written down on those cards and in those old boxes, he said, each one possessing a key to the understanding of some phrase found in the mother-tongue. Once or twice I’d helped him put his notes in order, sitting in the small patio outside his flat in the shade of a large umbrella.

I helped him with his English, but I don’t think I contributed much. I don’t know what other languages he wrote his notes in. Chinese, certainly, and possibly German and Czech. He knew Chinese reasonably well, but he didn’t often speak it. His heavy accent made it difficult for the local Chinese to understand him.

In Israel his area of study had been ancient Middle-Eastern languages, though I wasn’t sure what he was seeking or what he intended to do once he completed his studies. He claimed he was searching for something that would keep him from working at an ordinary job, yet it seemed all jobs were ordinary to him. Between games of backgammon on the waterfront one evening he said he didn’t want to become a victim of scholarship and end up holding down a prosaic, dead-end job at a university. That, he claimed, would be the end of learning. Yet having said that, he expressed no interest whatsoever in anything outside the world of academia.

Except, perhaps, for food. He never stopped talking about food.

So early on I discovered that Gregor was not a happy man. He feared for his future, he was uncertain of his capabilities, he was obsessively apprehensive of death, and yet he ate all the wrong things, got little exercise, and he smoked cheap Chinese cigarettes continuously.  Sometimes when he spoke, especially about his studiesand always when talking about eatingI detected a childlike mien in him. That seemed incongruous, given that he had a full but neatly trimmed black beard, wore thick eyeglassesnearly always smudged with his fingerprintsand had a growing bald patch on the back of his head.

At other times it seemed a cloud of gloom lingered over him. As I got to know him, I came to think he had known happier times when he was at the university in Czechoslovakia where he had studied history. But then the Russian tanks came in. He told of seeing them enter Prague one morning while he was on his way to his classes. He described the way they sounded rounding a corner near his home and went rattling up the boulevard to Wenceslas Square. He told of the smell in the air that day, a smell of diesel fumes and tear gas. He was close to one of the tanks, he said, and he reached forward and touched it. He told of the feel of the cold steel under his palm.

“Like touching nettles,” he said, and that day he and a number of his classmates put aside their books, turned, and began their long journey to the West.

No, Gregor was not a very happy man.

I sat at my desk thinking of that and filling my pipe. The tobacco was damp beneath my fingers as I pressed it into the bowl and I slowed my activity as I reflected on the man. He was nearly my age, perhaps a year or so younger at thirty-five or six, and he’d travelled half the world looking, I thought, for a place to call home. I had too, but he’d experienced the horrors of war firsthand, something I hadn’t.

Soon after we met, he told me how his father and mother, teachers in Czechoslovakia, had destroyed all signs of their past when Hitler came to power in Germany. They’d read his book, Mein Kampf, and they had no illusions. They could see that he was evil incarnate, and as Jews they had much to fear.

Therefore, on the day he assumed the office of Vice-Chancellor in Berlin they began their purge. They destroyed all the books, papers, letters and photos they or anyone in their family had of them together, and they tore up their marriage document. They visited the schools where they had been educated and had their names stricken from the records. They burned their birth certificates and went in secret to the city hall where they tore out of the record books any pages that had their names on them as taxpayers, voters, property owners, or as teachers.

When the Germans came to Czechoslovakia their work was done: not only were they not Jews, they didn’t exist. They’d become non-entities, and on the day Hitler declared Czechoslovakia a protectorate territory of Germany, Gregor’s mother entered a Catholic convent close to the Austrian border and there she would remain until the final day of the war. She was several months pregnant when she arrived, and she’d soon be giving birth to Gregor, their only child.

“I was born in a nunnery,” he said to me, “so what do you think? Do you think that makes me holy? I am like Moses, no?”

I tried to light my pipe, but it was useless. I felt drowsy; I needed more sleep.

One of the ocean-going ships seemed extremely close to the house, its long horn blasts so loud they shook my windows. I looked out the window facing the sea but the fog was thick and I saw nothing. Putting down my pipe, I stretched out on the bed and closed my eyes, but once more the ship sounded its horn and I couldn’t sleep. In the end, I went back to the bathtub and sat in the cool water.

Finally feeling awake, I got out, dabbed myself with a damp towel, and went back to the bedroom to get dressed. And then, standing there naked in front of the wide-open picture window, the fog lifted. It rose up so suddenly it astonished me, and there below me in all its enormous splendor was the QE2, so close to shore its stern seemed to be resting in my front patio. I saw a number of people moving about on the decks, and if it weren’t for the waves rolling over the rocks on the shore below me I was certain I could have heard their voices.

I was spellbound, until I remembered I didn’t have any clothes on. I went back to fetch the towel to cover up and when I returned I picked up the case that held my binoculars. Obviously, this was the ship responsible for the loud blasts that had shaken the windows. It seemed to be anchored there, but it wasn’t because I could see its anchors hoisted against the bow.

Just resting, I thought, and I watched streams of dark smoke coming from its funnels and drifting my way in a thin, flat smudge. Watching it was like watching a film without sound, more and more people moving around on the decks, some pointing here, some pointing there, most of them staring out at sea or in the direction of Hong Kong Island eight miles in the distance.

Oblivious, a young couple had their arms over each other’s shoulders and swayed a slow dance on the back deck.

I turned to look out my other window and the fog had lifted there too, and the blue of the sky had become one with the blue of the water. They seemed to merge in a solarized kind of scene, the sea and the sky, and Hong Kong island was a large green lump rising out of it, its highest peaks buried under a cover of dense white clouds.

I began to hear the soft throbbing of the liner’s engines and I thought of all the people on that splendid ship. They had sailed many oceans and halfway around the world to get here. And now, to the right of them, was the low profile of Lamma island with its two or three slim clouds overhead, and to their left was Cheung Chau island, a minuscule dot of green on the landscape of their travels. They had arrived, those lucky souls, two or three thousand of them, living in the lap of supreme luxury on my seas, inhaling deep breaths of my air, their feet planted on a beautiful deck to marvel at my views . . . .

The thing is, their experience was bound to be transitory, while I had that pleasure every hour of every single day.

Standing there and seeing my world as they saw it suddenly highlighted everything for me, and for the first time in a long time it helped to explain why it wasn’t particularly difficult for me to put up with the heat, contend with the mosquitoes that pursued me at night, tolerate the geckos that fell from my ceiling, overlook the moisture that trickled down the walls, and the poisonous centipedes I sometimes found hiding in my shoes. And it was even possible to ignore the small cobras that came up the drainpipes and tried to share my bathtub, and it made clear to me why it wasn’t too difficult to put up with a few typhoons throughout the simmering months of summer.

The handsome black and white ship had been waiting for the fog to lift, and when it did the sea began to churn behind it, ever so slightly at first, large whirlpools drifting out to the back, the sea becoming a flat surface with a dozen or more large eddies swirling on it, and then the froth pumping up around the propellers. It slipped away, and where its bow met the water there was a thin white wake spiraling along its sides like an uncoiling snake.

* * * * *

Gregor was standing at his patio gate, perspiring heavily, dressed in blood-red shorts and a smudged T-shirt that he’d pulled up to cool his hairy chest.

“John, I think I am getting a rash from the heat,” he said, letting me into the patio and closing the gate with a loud clang. “Look,” he said. “My belly is red. It itches. Isn’t this a rash? Maybe I have the prickly heat. Do you think so? It looks like the prickly heat to me.”

His black beard and thinning hair were soaked with perspiration, but he managed a smile.

“Those people at the Ho-Ho Bakery, they think they can cheat us gweilos,” he said, using the Cantonese pejorative for us pale-skinned Caucasians. It means ghost person. He took a key from under a potted plant and opened his front door. The plant in the pot was turning brown from lack of water.

“They had fresh cakes at the Ho-Ho that they just took out of their oven while I was there, but they wanted me to accept their old cakes. Maybe they baked them yesterday, I don’t know. But I wanted the fresh ones. They were hot. They didn’t want me to have the hot ones.”

“So?  The old ones wouldn’t be all that old, would they?”

“Never mind, feel this.” He held up a small white paper bag and set it down in my palms. “You can feel that, can’t you? These cakes are hot.”

“They are,” I answered, giving him back the bag.

He smiled broadly.

“At the Ho-Ho Bakery you have to shout sometimes to get fresh cakes. I don’t like to shout, but sometimes you must.”

His front door squeaked as he pushed it open. “Go in,” he said, and I stepped into the room. It was sultry, even though he had left the windows open.

“Sit down,” he said. “Sit and I will make us coffee.”

He moved in quick jerks and hurried toward the kitchen. “I will take care of everything,” he called. “Sit, John, and relax yourself. You must be hot from the walk.”

Relaxing wouldn’t be easy. The room was stuffy. It was smaller than I remembered it, but it had been several weeks since I last saw it. And even then, that had been at night and from the outside when we came back from Alan’s Café and Gregor had set up a table so we could play backgammon in his patio. It had seemed bare to me then, and it was bare now.

When Gregor suggested I sit down he had been gesturing toward a mattress on the floor. It was pushed against the wall in such a way that half of it was folded up the wall to make a couch. It didn’t look particularly clean, although it was partially covered with a blue and white piece of cloth, something that looked like Malaysian tie-dyed material.

Facing Gregor’s makeshift couch was an elderly television set, and I guessed it would have been the one that he had inherited from Bertie and Darla Brewster, two English teachers who had lived on the island awhile and then returned home to England. It wasn’t on a table or a stand: it, too, sat on the floor.

Opposite it was a square fold-up table and a couple of round folding stools, and on the table were Gregor’s notes and books. Heaps of both. The books tilted and wobbled at various angles defying gravity and I couldn’t help but go over and straighten a couple of the more threatening piles. I wouldn’t have been able to relax if I didn’t.

There were three worn pairs of plastic flip-flop sandals next to the door, and beyond that there was little else in that tiny space, except, of course, the many cardboard shoe boxes that were stacked waist high against two of the walls. It was their front room, as well as Gregor’s study, but there was no view of the village, no view of the sea, there was no breeze, and it was stifling hot.

It was like living in a monk’s cloistered chamber. I wondered how much of it was a carry-over from Gregor’s childhood, his early years in a convent?

“Can you smell the coffee, John?” he called out.

I could, and it smelled good. He was brewing a pot of the genuine stuff, which was quite rare to me. Most of the time I and everyone I knew settled for instant coffee.

“I bought a small bottle of Dairy Farm milk,” he said. “It’s rich milk, full of cream. You can have that if you want milk in your coffee.”

Dairy Farm milk came in glass bottles and was the only natural milk sold in Hong Kong. Everything else was UV milk, which came in paper cartons. The milk in it had been treated with ultraviolet light and it seemed to last and last. At least until the carton was opened. All milk in Hong Kong was expensive, but Dairy Farm milk was even more expensive.

“You’ve won the Mark Six Lottery?” I asked. “First a telephone, then a bag of ground coffee? And now fresh milk in a bottle?”

He came in with two mugs and handed me one. The coffee was black and steaming. He had a bemused smile on his face, one that implied he’d been up to mischief. “Ach so, the telephone,” he grinned. “That’s funny. Let me show you, John.”

Cup in hand, he led me to the back of the flat. I saw the tiny kitchen only briefly, but it was time enough to see there were a lot of unwashed dishes in and around the sink.

Gregor led me into the bedroom. A large piece of cloth hung over the single window, a printed piece of yellow material that served as a curtain. The bed was another mattress laid on the floor, and there was a plastic wardrobe against the opposite wall.

It was an old plastic one, and the plastic was badly torn. The zippers were broken and the openings hung down far enough for me to see that the two of them possessed very few changes of clothes. There was a battered suitcase stored on top of the wardrobe, and under the only window in the room was the telephone.

“Look at this, John” Gregor said, holding up the thin connection wire and grinning. He held it between a finger and thumb and traced along it to the window. Then he pulled aside the curtain and turned to me with a look of complete satisfaction on his face.

“See?” he said. “It’s not connected here.”

I looked closer and saw the wire continuing out the window and going up the outside of the house.

“When the old man upstairs died, the family came to get him. I don’t know, John, he may have been dead for a long time. How did they know he was dead? They never came here. If they did, I didn’t see them. Oh, do you want some milk in your coffee?”

“Not yet.”

“They took the old man away yesterday when I was here working. I heard them bringing him down the stairs and I looked outside. They had him in a coffin and they carried him out the gate.

I don’t know, John, maybe the old man had his coffin upstairs all this time. The Chinese people do that, you know . . . .”

He looked grim and I saw him shudder.

“And?”

“And when they were gone, I was curious. Curiosity kills the cats, is that what you say? Well, I was a cat. I went outside and the door to the old man’s flat was open. No one had locked it, so I went upstairs. It’s a bigger place he has upstairs. I can see the harbor and the village from his windows. It’s a nice place he has,” he said, talking as though the old man was still alive.

“He has many old books, and he has scrolls on his walls. Maybe he’s an educated man, I don’t know.  I suppose he must be.” He sipped the hot coffee. It was far too hot for me.

Ummmm, good coffee,” he said, lifting his cup and smacking his lips. “This is from the Mandarin Cake Shop. I bought a bag there yesterday.  Just a little bag, to have a treat.”

“I know. You told me.”

“So, it is a nice flat upstairs,” he said, picking up his chain of thought. “Maybe I will see if we can get it.  It has good views and it has breezes. We get no wind down here. It is too hot here. I will talk to the landlord about it.”

“What about the telephone?”

“Oh, yes, the telephone.” He began to twitter again. “I had this wire that I found across the road, over there where they are building new houses. And I got a knife and I went upstairs with the wire and I took off the little box on the wall and I hooked up this wire and threw it out the window so I could hook my telephone to it. We learned to do that in Czechoslovakia.”

“Where did the telephone come from?”

“I found that in the trash barrel up the way, up on the corner by the Mynah Bird Store. Someone had moved away and I guess they threw it in there. So I took it.”

“What happens now?” I asked him.

“I don’t know, but today I have a telephone. Maybe tomorrow I will have one also. Maybe not.  The number I gave you is the old man’s number. It’s upstairs on his telephone. It will ring here and up there at the same time; that’s why I don’t know how long I will have a telephone. Maybe someone will come to remove it, I don’t know.”

He led me out of the room to the front of the house, to his study.

“What do you think, John?  Do you think they will send me to jail if they find I have done such a thing?”

“No, not you. You’re a Westerner,” I answered, “and this is a British colony.”

“I’m glad. I wondered about that, but I thought as you do. No one puts Westerners in jail here.”

“I’ll have some of that milk now,” I said, putting my cup on top of the television set and taking out my tobacco. “I think it’s getting cool enough to drink.”

“You sure you don’t need sugar and no milk? That’s the Viennese way. Thick, with lots of sugar.”

“No, just milk,” I answered.

Ach so, okay. All right,” he muttered, mixing up his languages and going to the kitchen. “About those documents,” he said as he returned with the pint bottle and handed it to me. “They are here.  I have them in this box.”

I poured milk into my coffee and watched it swirl. I hadn’t noticed the box. It was on the floor beneath the table, a large metal safe deposit type of box with a little flip lock on it.

“But first,” he said, “we will have our cakes.”  He pulled the bag open and dipped a hand in to bring out a yellow custard cake. “Ah, your favorite,” he said, handing it to me.

He ate as though a man possessed.  We finished the cakes, but he finished long before I did. He had crumbs on his beard and went off to pour more coffee.

“Come now,” he said when we had finished the cakes and he carried away the empty cups. “I think you will be surprised by these documents.”

He squatted down to open the gray metal case and then carefully lifted out a thick parcel of papers and put them on the table. They were well wrapped in a clear plastic envelope, and there was no mistaking the fact that they looked old. Since there was so little room on the table, Gregor removed several piles of books and shuffled stacks of papers together to make space.

“I have been working on my Chinese dialects,” he explained, and then he paused, a long, solemn pause.

“Such work, so much work,” he sighed.

Then: “Look at this,” he said, sitting down on one of the small stools and peeling away the plastic and gently slipping out a bundle of papers. “Look, John. Do you see that?”

I opened the other stool and sat beside him. “Yes, I see it, but what is it? That’s German; what’s it about?” I asked.

“Look, here’s another one. And here’s another.

He laid several more documents on the table and leaned back. “Do you know what that is?”

“Of course I do, it’s a Nazi seal with a swastika.”

Ja, das Hakenkreuz. The Nazi sign, that’s it. And do you know what these are?”

I had no idea.

Slowly, and very carefully, Gregor opened a folded document and laid it out on the space he’d made on the table. It appeared to be a typed letter with the seal of the Nazis at the top, a black seal of an eagle with its wings outstretched. And beneath the eagle was a wreath containing the tumbling swastika.

GEHEIM REICHSAECHE”  was stamped across the top of the page in large red letters.

“Can you read the German, John?” Gregor asked. “It says TOP SECRET. And look at this word here.”

He pointed to it: “’BESPRECHUNGSPROTOKOLL.’ It means ‘CONFERENCE MINUTES.’ I asked someone for an exact translation of that once. That’s how I know.”

He adjusted his smudged glasses and began to read: “An der am 20, 1, 1942 in Berlin, Am Grossen Wannsee Nr. 56/58 stattgefundenen Besprechung über die Endösung der Judenfrage nahmen tiel, . . .

He stopped  reading and looked at me.

“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” I said, drawing an arm across my face to wipe away perspiration that was about to get into my eyes.

“But look at this, John,” he said with a trace of excitement in his voice. “Look at this name: Reinhard Heydrich.”

He turned and stared into my eyes.

“This is that man, John. Heydrich, the Nazi responsible for planning the killing of the Jews. Look, here is his title: SS-Obergruppenführer.”

He turned to look at the papers again.

“This is the man the Germans called ‘Der Hanker.’ That means ‘The Hangman.’ Other people called him ‘The Butcher.’ And this . . . .”

He lifted it carefully from the table.

“This is his document. Here he proposes to get rid of all the Jews in Europe. He calls it ‘Die Endlösung,’ the ‘Final Solution,’ and this document, John, it is called ‘The Wannsee Protocol.’”

Gregor suddenly put the pages down.

“One minute, just one minute, John. Too much coffee. I must go to the toilet . . . .”

I stood waiting, flies buzzing my head, looking at a pale green lizard sunning itself on the window ledge. I didn’t know what to make of the pile of papers on the table. They looked ancient and I had no doubt they were genuine. But they confused me. Sweat streamed from every pore of my body, though perhaps it only seemed that way.

There wasn’t a bit of wind blowing through Gregor’s open windows, but I saw that a breeze coming off the sea was slowly moving the branches of a bombax tree across the path in front of the house. I took a tissue out of a packet in my shirt pocket, dried my forehead, and looked again at the documents on the table. I wished my German were better.

Gregor returned.

“Sorry,” he said. “I had to rinse my face. I think I have the prickly heat. Ach, it is so humid today. But we must look at these documents inside the house. We can’t take them outside. I think the sun would be dangerous for them.”

I nodded agreement.

“I think you’re right.  What are those numbers?” I asked, pointing to the top of the first page of the document he had been holding.

He still had crumbs from the Ho-Ho cakes in his beard.

“That says ‘30 Ausfertigungen,’” he replied, picking the pages up again. “It means there were thirty copies made of this document. And under it, do you see that, John?  It says this is ‘3 Ausfertigung,’ meaning ‘this is the third copy.’”

He turned to look at me.

“Do you know what that means, John? That means this is a very historic document because it is Number Three. Number One copy and Number Two copy would have gone to the top, John. To Hitler and Himmler. So this one, Number Three, is the one that Heydrich had. It was his. Do you know that name, John? Reinhard Heydrich?”

I did.

I had spent some time studying the rise and fall of Nazi Germany, and I knew that Heydrich was the Nazi general in charge of security in the SS, Hitler’s private police force, dedicated to protecting Hitler with their lives. Its insignia was a skull and crossbones, and its members, like the pieces of Nazi property that they were, had their serial numbers tattooed under their arms. In the early days of the Nazi party they dressed in black and terrorized the German people until Hitler seized control of the government. Not many years later it was Heydrich’s SS that created the gas chambers to carry out the systematic extermination of Europe’s Jews. Himmler was the head of the SS, and Heydrich was his right-hand man.

“That’s right, you are right, John,” Gregor said, nodding. “Heydrich was the second in command of the SS. After Himmler. You would call him Deputy Head, or something like that.  But look . . . .”

He turned back to the document.

“On this first page there is a list of those in attendance at this meeting. Look: the Reich Minister for Occupied Eastern Territories; the Reich Minister for the Interior; the Reich Minister of Justice; the head of the Army Security Police; the Commander of Security for the Army; and then the names of a dozen others. And here, look at this, the name of Heydrich. And here, see this?  It’s the name of Adolph Eichmann.”

Eichmann? He’s the guy they called ‘The Exterminator,’ isn’t he? The one who  fled Nazi Germany at the end of the war? He went in hiding in Argentina, I think. Or maybe it was Brazil. Wherever it was, the Israeli secret police eventually found the guy and he was smuggled out of the country and taken to Israel and put on trial.”

“Yes, that was Eichmann. He was the one Heydrich chose to carry out this Final Solution plan.

Here, this was his title: ‘Obersturmbannführer,’ the head of State Security. In Israel they found him guilty of crimes against humanity and then he was hanged. But I will translate this for you, John,” Gregor said, bending forward and pressing his glasses firmly against his nose.

“This at the beginning; it is the introduction. And here is the date. It says: ‘Here in Berlin an der am . . . on 20 January 1942 . . . at Greater Wannsee Number 56/58, this discussion for the final solutiondie Endlösungof the Jewish question took place.

“That number,” Gregor pointed to it, “that’s the address of the house where this secret meeting took place. It’s a private house, a villa on a lake. It’s in Wannsee, a suburb of Berlin. That’s why this document is called ‘The Wannsee Protocol.’”

He lowered his head and resumed reading:

“The Chief of Security Police, Reinhard Heydrich, has been delegated by the Reich Marshal Herman Göring to make preparations for the final solution of the Jewish question in Europe, to clarify all matters and bring together all central offices immediately concerned with these questions to bring their general activities into line. The Reichsführer-SS and the Chief of the Security Police have been entrusted with the handling of the final solution of the Jewish question without regard to geographic borders. The Chief of the Security Police gave a short report of the struggle which has been carried out thus far against this enemy, the essential points being the following:

     (a) the expulsion of the Jews from every sphere of life of the German people,

     (b) the expulsion of the Jews from the living space of the German people . . . .”

The document was several pages long, and I closed my eyes to listen to Gregor’s translation. Then he paused.

“In the early days the Nazi’s got the Jews to leave Germany and go somewhere else, to other countries, or to go overseas. They made the rich Jews pay a tax to cover the travel expenses of the poorer Jews.”

He read the relevant section:

“In spite of extraordinary difficulties, 537,000 Jews were sent out of the country between our takeover of power and 31 October 1941.  Of these, approximately 360,000 were in Germany proper, approximately 147,000 were in Austria, and 30,000 were in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia . . . .”

“Yes, and here is the information about the tax on rich Jews,”  Gregor said:

“The Jews themselves, or their Jewish political organizations, financed the emigration. In order to avoid impoverished Jews remaining behind, the principle was followed that wealthy Jews have to finance the emigration of poor Jews. This was arranged by imposing a suitable tax which was used for financial arrangements in connection with the emigration of poor Jews, and was imposed according to income. Foreign Jews donated a total of around $9,500,000.”

He stopped reading.

“So you see, the Nazi’s took the money, and now they have stopped letting Jews out of Germany,” he said. “Also, they are at war with the United States, and so it’s too late. So now they have to find another way to get rid of the Jews. They discuss that in the next point:

“Another possible solution of the problem has now taken the place of emigration. That is, the evacuation of the Jews to the East, provided that the Führer gives the appropriate approval.

These actions are to be considered provisional, but practical experience is already being collected which is of the greatest importance in relation to the future of the final solution of the Jewish question. Approximately eleven million Jews will be involved in the final solution of the European Jewish question, distributed as follows among the individual countries:

     Germany proper131,800 

     Austria43,700

     Eastern Territories 420,000

     General Government2,284,000

     Bialystok400,000

     Protectorate of Bohemia & Moravia74,200

     EstoniaJudenfrei [No Jews]

     Latvia3,500

     Lithuania34,000

     Belgium43,000 

     Denmark5,600

     France / Occupied territory165,000        

     France / Unoccupied territory700,000 . . . .”

There was more, but Gregor stopped.

“That figure for Bohemia, that would include my mother and my father. They lived there, in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. That was the Nazi’s name for Czechoslovakia.  Since 1938 they had occupied it. I was born there, in Slovakia, in the convent. I told you about that. Just before this Wannsee meeting,” Gregor said.

“But look . . . .”

He lifted the page.

“You can see for yourself. The list of nations goes on and on. This is the Nazi record of Jews in every country in Europe, and see here, this is Switzerland, and Sweden, with 18,000 and 8,000 Jews. They even counted the Jews in neutral countries. Here is England with 330,000 Jews, and look, Ireland, with 4,000!  And here at the bottom, that’s the total of all the Jews in Europe and Russia: 11,000,000.”

The magnitude of what I was looking at suddenly struck me. Yet it was surrealistic, standing in a Jew’s house, here on a tiny Chinese island in the middle of the South China Sea, at a time almost forty years after the fact, hot, covered with sweat, Gregor, a lounging lizard and I, looking at something a group of senior Nazis had put together in the early days of the war: a piece of paper that would set in motion one of the greatest acts of mass extermination in the history of civilization.

“Good God, Gregor, this is too difficult,” I said, reaching for my tobacco pouch and loading my pipe.

I walked across the room to the television set and looked out the opposite window. A short way up the path I could see the green tarpaulin roof of the Mynah Bird Store.

“This is almost too much to grasp,” I said, puffing deeply on my pipe. “And it’s hard.  I mean it’s hard to picture these men. Fifteen grown men, educated men, presumably; intelligent human beings, one would guess, sitting together in a room and discussing this,” I said. “And yet they did, didn’t they?”

“They did, John. And they did it in the land of Beethoven and Bach. I heard someone say that once.”

“In the land of Schiller and Goethe and a few thousand other geniuses, too,” I interjected, shaking my head and pacing across the room.

I stopped and closed my eyes.

“I’m trying to get a picture of this: a villa on a lake. It’s January, so it’s cold outside. Bloody freezing cold. The lake is frozen. There is probably fresh snow on the ground. It’s dark, but inside the house it’s warm and comfortable. And the conference room, what’s it like? The floors are inlaid wood. Hardwood. Oak, maybe. Waxed and polished to perfection. So shiny they reflect the images of the people, the ministers in their dark suits and ties, the generals in their black uniforms and high boots.

“They sit at a long table smoking strong cigarettes and wispy clouds of smoke hovers over their heads. They wear their swastika armbands. This butcher, Heydrich, is at the head of the table, on his feet, reading this stuff to them. Music is playing. Soft music. I don’t suppose they had piped-in music in those days so there had to have been a radio or phonograph somewhere. In an adjoining room, probably. What is it that’s playing, Gregor? Debussy or Chopin? Not on your life. Maybe it’s Wagner or Bach. Probably a string quartet. Telemann?”

Gregor stood watching me as I moved around the room, his head tilted slightly to one side. He nodded slowly and put the document down to wipe sweat from his eyes.

I handed him a tissue from my packet. He blotted his face and used it to wipe his hands before picking up the papers again.

“Yes, these were educated men, John. Look, half of the men in the room have the title Doktor after their names.  Nearly all of them except Heydrich had advanced degrees.”

He picked up the pages again and went on translating:

Under proper guidance, in the course of the final solution the Jews are to be allocated for appropriate labor in the East in the European part of the USSR. Ablebodied Jews, separated according to sex, will be taken in large work columns to these areas for work on roads, in the course of which action doubtless a large portion will be eliminated by natural causes. The possible final remnant will, since it will undoubtedly consist of the most resistant portion, have to be treated accordingly, because it is the product of natural selection and would, if released, act as a seed of a new Jewish revival (see the experience of history).

“In the course of the practical execution of the final solution, Europe will be combed through from west to east. Germany proper, including the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, will have to be handled first due to the housing problem and additional social and political necessities.

“The evacuated Jews will first be sent, group by group, to so-called transit ghettos, from which they will be transported to the East . . . .”

“I will skip this next part,” Gregor said dismissively. “It is complicated and difficult. They talk about mixed-blood Jews; Jews who have a parent who is not a Jew; Jews who have a parent who is a genuine German; and so forth and so forth. Everything is by degrees, and on that basis they discuss who will be deported and who will stay. And here they say this:

Persons of mixed blood of the first degree who are exempted from evacuation will be sterilized in order to prevent any offspring and to eliminate the problem of persons of mixed blood once and for all.

‘Persons of mixed blood of the second degree will be treated fundamentally as German, with the exception of the person of mixed blood of the second degree that has a racially undesirable appearance that marks him outwardly as a Jew, or the person of mixed blood of the second degree that has a particularly bad police and political record that shows that he feels and behaves like a Jew . . . .’”

Once again Gregor put the pages down, this time a bit dramatically.

“Look at me, John,” he asked suddenly, looking hard into my eyes. “No matter what my blood is, first degree or second degree or no degree at all, do I not look like a Jew? Of course I do. I have the features of a Jew: a prominent nose, black hair, a beard, thick glasses, maybe not a very attractive face. Am I not marked outwardly as a Jew?

“I am a Jew, of course I am. I have all the traits of one of their racially undesirable persons, and in the end, first degree or second degree, it didn’t matter. It would never have mattered. They didn’t have to define what a Jew was, or how a Jew looked or behaved.

“All that mattered was what the Germans thought a Jew was. That was enough. And did you hear that word I read earlier, that word ‘reinigen’—‘to cleanse’? They said it was necessary to cleanse Germany of its Jews, but as you see, their report includes Jews everywhere. Even the Jews in Ireland and the Jews in a tiny place like Switzerland worried them. And here is why; this last paragraph tells you why:

Jews must be removed from the territory of the General Government as quickly as possible, since it is especially here that the Jew as an epidemic carrier represents an extreme danger, and on the other hand, he is causing permanent chaos in the economic structure of the country through continued black market dealings. Therefore, the Jewish question in this area must be solved as quickly as possible.’”

Flies were buzzing around my head and I backed away from the table. Gregor put the pages down and went to the kitchen. He returned with a spray can of insect repellent and aimed it toward the table.

“God, no! Not indoors, Gregor!” I shouted, moving toward the doorway.

He looked puzzled. “How else to kill the flies if you don’t squirt them?”

“No, you’ll ruin your documents.  And you’ll ruin me.”

He looked at the pile of papers on the table and set the can of spray on the window ledge, frightening away the sleeping lizard.

“What do you think, John? Of these documents, what do you think?”

“I’m amazed. Really and truly amazed, Gregor. How in the world did these documents ever end up with you?” I asked, tapping the tobacco down in my pipe and searching for my lighter.

Gregor slowly shook his head up and down as he slipped the pages back into their plastic envelope and folded the top carefully to make an airtight packet.

“They came from my father,” he said calmly, still nodding his head.

“I have more things too,” he said, motioning to the other bundles wrapped in plastic on his table, “but I don’t think they are as important as this ‘Wannsee Protocol.’ Do you know, only one other copy of it has been found? Copy Number Sixteen. It was found in the file cabinet of one of those ministers after the war.

“But this one, this was Heydrich’s document. His alone, and that is true. And this, look at this. It’s a letter Heydrich wrote to his wife. But he never mailed it.  He was shot dead before he could.”

He carefully slipped it out and showed it to me. Three pages long, it was signed “Reinie.”

Gregor didn’t translate it, and I couldn’t decipher any of the old German script. Blue ink on grey-flecked stationery. Gregor nodded his head and put it and the Wannsee document back into the metal box. “Excuse me . . . .”

He went to the kitchen and returned with a packet of Good Companion cigarettes.

“After this Wannsee meeting, Heydrich went back to Prague where he was the governor,” he continued. “But as I told you, it wasn’t Czechoslovakia any more. It was the Protectorate of Bohemia.”

He shook his head.

“This man Heydrich was a tyrant, you know. Very cruel. The Czechs called him ‘Ta Rezník’ . . . ‘The Butcher.’ He executed 30,000 or 40,000 Jews in Prague alone, and he ruled the country like a man from Hell. The Czech people had to work for him in the Nazi factories, and others were sent to work camps because Hitler said the Czechs were almost as terrible as the Jews. The Nazis made all of them slaves. Secretly, Heydrich told his officers he would do to the Czechs what he was doing to the Jews, but that would be after Germany won the war.”

He wiped his forehead with the damp tissue and tried lighting a cigarette, but his matches were wet.

“My matches are soft from the fog,” he said. “Can I use your lighter, John?”

I lighted his cigarette and he puffed deeply and exhaled loudly.

“Come,” he said. “We will go outside and find some shade and get some air.”

We stepped through the doorway into the patio. A slight wind was coming off the water and it felt a little cooler. He stood looking out beyond his gate in thought. Finally he turned to me.

“Let us walk, John,” he said.

“Your papers . . . .”

“They are safe for now. They are dry. They aren’t bothered by the heat like we are. Let us walk to the Mynah Bird and I will get a cola and buy you a ginger beer.”

He closed the door behind him but I didn’t see him lock it.

“Oh,” he paused and pulled up short, his hands searching in his pockets. “I can’t go, John.”

He looked at me and twittered his embarrassed laugh. “Ana didn’t leave me money. I think she forgot. I only had enough money for the cakes today. That’s all I had. I am sorry; I forgot.”

“Come, for Christ’s sake, Gregor.” I nodded toward the gate. “I’ve certainly got enough money for a cola!”

Ach,” he said, holding the gate and twittering in embarrassment. “Ja, thank you; I will pay it back to you this week. For sure, John.”

We were on the path and he closed the gate. We turned to the right to walk to the small grocery shop and it felt good smelling clean air again. It seemed to me that the Nazi documents had poisoned the air in Gregor’s house.

“Ana will get another job teaching English in the evenings,” he said. “We will have more money then.”

We rounded a corner and took stools at a small wood table under the umbrella tree at the Mynah Bird.

“Maybe I will teach at Ana’s school too,” he said. “Do you think I could teach English, John?”

I hesitated before answering.

“No. I don’t think so.”

Ja, I don’t think so either. My English is not good.”

“It’s good, but not good enough to teach English to little kids.”

“It’s my accent, ja?”

“Yes.”

“I thought so. Maybe I will record my voice and listen to my accent. I can’t hear it otherwise. Is that how to correct an accent, listening to yourself talk?”

“That may be a good way, I don’t know. That sounds reasonable.”

The black mynah bird that had given the small shop its name squawked inconsequential syllables inside the bamboo cage that hung from a low limb of the bushy umbrella tree. Gregor stood and went across the path to the red Coca-Cola cooler. He slid back the lid.

“Ah, the lady has ice today. Good, the drinks will be cold. Do you want a ginger beer, John?”

“Please.”

I watched as he selected a ginger beer and a cold bottle of cola sitting close to the block of ice.

The old woman came out of her grocery store with a bottle opener. She never smiled at Gregor, but she had begun to smile at me.

“If you come by here and happen to see the lady’s grandkids, why don’t you give them a little help with their English lessons, Gregor? She’ll smile for you all the time after that,” I joked.

He made a face.

“She doesn’t want to be friendly. How can she be in business if she doesn’t want to be friendly?”

“Give it a try. Help her grandson or granddaughter with their English homework. All you have to do is help them for ten minutes. Just once. Maybe twice. She’ll smile you to death after that.”

“They won’t hear my accent?”

“Of course they will, but it won’t be important. Helping them is important.”

“I will see, John. Anyway, how is your ginger beer?”

“Never mind that; tell me how in the world you got that copy of the ‘Wannsee Protocol.’  And not just a copy, but Heydrich’s copy!”

Gregor put his thin fingers around the wet bottle and looked at the table.

“The papers, they were my father’s,” he said.

Except for the unseen cicadas, there was no sound for several moments.

“My father . . . he gave them to me when I left Czechoslovakia. He wanted me to take them to Vienna. He said he didn’t want the Communists to get them. He worried about that. He said they had guilty consciences about killing Jews themselves and would probably destroy the documents. Or if not that, the papers would probably be sent to Moscow and never be seen again in the West. Also, as he had no money to give me when I went away, my father gave me the documents.  He said if I was hungry, maybe I could try to sell them in the West.”

“But how did he get them?”

“It’s an amazing story, John. I will tell you what I know . . . .”

With Gregor’s mother safely in a Catholic convent in the Sumava Mountains, his father went to Prague. He would escape to England to join the Free Czech government in exile, or he would stay in Czechoslovakia and join the resistance, he thought.

Outwardly, Prague seemed little affected by the war. But when he looked closer it was clear that it was a very different city from the one he had known in the years when he was at Charles University.

For one thing, there were fewer people, and when you met them on the streets they were clearly terrified. It had been three years since the coming of the Nazis and they had learned to turn their backs and focus their eyes on their feet whenever a military truck stopped or booted soldiers marched past. It was wise not to see anything.

It was also wise to use greater care crossing the streets, for when the Nazis took over they changed the way traffic moved. Now a part of the German Motherland, vehicles were made to drive on the right side of the road, not the left side as they had done previously. The Communists, anarchists, homosexuals, former soldiers, government employees and dissidents: they’d all been removed from the city, most of them never to be seen again.

And the Jews of Prague, they’d been taken to Thereszíenstadt, an ancient fortress town to the north, now turned into an enormous concentration camp. The new SS governor, Deputy Protector Heydrich, liked to boast that he had tamed the Czech lion. He had the Slovak animals eating out of his hand, he said.

To achieve this, he ruled with a rose in an iron fist: when he was obeyed, he handed out favors; when he was defied, he doled out death. Little wonder he came to believe he was surrounded by grateful citizens glad to have an Aryan officer, a German, adding purpose to their lives.

With his new identity, Gregor’s father visited the coffeehouses in the Old Town, and there he found he was still recognized. That would have been disturbing except that those who knew him were producing new lives on top of their pasts too. Some were Jews, most were not, but they were all sharing the same vulnerable experience and they looked older and were more fatalistic because of it.

Soon he was living a quiet life in Golden Lane, an ancient cobblestone alley of dwarf-like bungalows just below Prague Castle. Franz Kafka had lived in a cottage there. He had written The Trial at Number 22 Golden Lane. Now, with Kafka dead and the Jews gone, the Kafka house was empty and the intellectuals who still remained in the city were concerned. The house contained Kafka’s library, and it was an extensive one. And some of Kafka’s manuscripts were there as well.

Someone had asked Gregor’s father to live in the house and look after it. They might have said ‘to protect it,’ but protect would have been an inexact word, for how can one protect something in a place occupied by armed terrorists?

It was a rare opportunity, however, and Gregor’s father took the risk and accepted.

When he came to Prague he had taken a room in the workingmen’s section of Karlín and found a job in the restaurant at the Opera House. But, using the name Jan Jaroslav Svoboda, he applied at City Hall for a change of residency and permission was granted. At that moment, remaining in Prague to look after a national literary treasure seemed as legitimate a gesture as leaving Czechoslovakia to join the Free Czech Resistance Movement.

Furthermore, after all that had happened to him, to Czechoslovakia and to Europe in the past two or three years, it was rewarding to sit at Kafka’s desk in Number 22 Golden Lane reading and re-reading his handwritten manuscripts in his precise German. Sometimes after reading The Metamorphosis or The Stoker or Report to the Academy, he would have a feeling that he was Franz Kafka, and he’d walk to Staré Mesto, the Old Town, to wander past Oppelt House where Kafka had spent the first forty years of his life, living in the house of his parents.

The apartment was there, but he didn’t go near it: there was no telling whom the SS had installed in it once the Jews had been removed. Instead, he would stroll across the square to the New Jewish Cemetery in Žužkov. It helped to assure him, for the graves were there, and there they would always be: the graves of Franz, his father, and his mother. The cemetery was haunting for it was half empty: the generation that was expected to fill it was gone.

They had all been transported to death camps.

It was spring, and the weather was exceptionally mild that year. The lilacs were blooming in every park and garden, and the scent wafted over the walls and across the city roofs. Neither the oppressors nor the war could change that.

The cottage door was open, and Gregor’s father sat in Kafka’s chair with his eyes closed. He had no radio. No one had a radio. At first the only news he or anyone had was what the new government allowed them to have in their daily newspaper. But then he learned that there was a radio receiver in the center of Prague. At a coffeehouse called The Cat. Upstairs, in the top floor. Under the eaves. And he knew there was a transmitter nearby, though he had no idea where it was. He didn’t want to know. The reports from the BBC were passed along from person to person, sometimes so openly that he feared they were being too bold.

He had been to the coffeehouse early in the morning, and now he was sitting in Kafka’s worn armchair digesting the news of the day.

That’s when he heard the muffled sound of tires on cobblestones, and then the slight squeal of a car as it braked.

The engine stopped and he opened his eyes, and what he saw caused his face and hands to go cold as his blood rushed to his ankles. A shiny dark green Mercedes convertible had stopped outside his very door, and while the passenger sat motionless in the back the driver rushed to the side to open the door. An SS officer swung his legs out.

It was the first sight of those spotlessly clean polished black boots coming out of the back of the car and touching the cobblestones that would remain in his memory forever after, and then the rest of the picture would fall into place in his mind: the large green car with its top down, the bright hub caps gleaming in the sunlight, the sound of the car door being opened . . . . And the officer in black, his visored hat firmly placed on his head so that it created a dark shadow across his eyes, a general’s baton in his hands.

He stood staring directly into the open doorway at Number 22, and then he took two steps and was at the door.

“Rudolph II put his alchemists in these houses to find the secrets of making gold,” the officer said, his voice unnaturally high-pitched for such a tall man. “Tell me, did they find the answer?”

He lowered his head and stepped into the room.

“Are there any secrets to be discovered here?”

The man sitting in the chair had no reply. His mouth moved, but he had no ability to speak.

The officer’s head didn’t move, but his eyes had swept every corner of the small room, and now they peered straight into the eyes of Gregor’s father. The eyes boring into him were the most frigid ones he had ever seen. There was not one shred of life behind them. He was tall, for he almost touched the ceiling, and his face, so young-looking for such a man, was absolutely rigid: it could have been cast in bronze or plaster. He had an elongated nose that seemed to start well above his eyebrows, and his voice was as from another world.

“So the Jew Kafka lived here,” he said, taking two more steps and moving into the room.

His thin lips scarcely moved, and his cold eyes seemed to pierce Gregor’s father’s head and pin it to the back of his chair.

“Show me his manuscripts!” he commanded.

Gregor’s father had to force his body from the chair, and he virtually limped across the room to a glass-fronted bookcase. None of his movements were natural; he had to send instructions to his arms and legs to make them move. He fumbled for the key, pulled it from a pocket in his trousers, and opened the doors. Leaving the key in the lock, he stepped back to the chair and leaned his weight against it.

The German moved forward and stood in silence looking at the rows of books until his eyes focused on two large notebooks on the middle shelf. His hands clasped his baton in front of him.  He wore tight black leather gloves, so tight they seemed to be part of him. He pursed his mouth and pulled them off, grasping them and his baton under his left elbow. He reached forward.

In der Strafkolonie,” he said, taking out In The Penal Colony and opening the cover. He turned the pages and read for a moment.

“Excellent German script. Quite excellent,” he said, slowly turning the pages.

“He handles books with reverence,” Gregor’s father thought . . . “How incongruous.”

He still felt drained of blood and could think of little else.

The German turned his head and looked at the man before him with those same unfeeling blue eyes.  “What words would die Egge, the Harrow, inscribe on the back of a Jew, Jan Jaroslav Svoboda?” he asked, starring him squarely in the face, his eyes unblinking.  Getting no reply, he proposed an answer himself. “Honor thy superiors?  Is that what the Harrow would write?”

Gregor’s father could not speak. He gazed into the face of the man standing before him, his heart pounding, his mind racing, but his lips refusing to move. The German stiffened and turned the pages of the manuscript.

“Well then, if you can’t say, maybe you would know what words the machine would inscribe on the back of a German.”

Be just?” Gregor’s father replied suddenly, and after he had spoken he couldn’t believe he’d said the words. The voice he heard within his head didn’t sound like his voice.

“We are just. Genetic determinism is just,” the German answered while staring at the pitiful figure of a man tilted against the chair.

“Where are his other manuscripts? There are too few here.”

Gregor’s father heard the same odd voice in his head.

“They are in Palestine. I understand that is where they were taken.”

Those cold eyes bore into him again.

“Max Brod,” the German officer said matter-of-factly.

Gregor’s father nodded. Max Brod had been Kafka’s best friend. He left Prague after Kafka died and before the Nazis arrived, taking with him a great many of Kafka’s manuscripts, letters, and diaries.  What few remained in Prague were on those shelves. But there weren’t many.

“Did Kafka play the violin?” the German asked, looking across the room where a violin and bow were on an oak table.

“I don’t think so. The violin is mine,” Gregor’s father answered.

The German moved over and picked it up.

“An Otto,” he said, examining it carefully and nodding his head. His long white fingers plucked the strings casually, and then he put his baton and gloves on the table and took off his hat with the skull and crossbones emblem on it. He placed it carefully on top of his gloves and picked up the bow, raised the violin to his chin, and began to play the slow movement of Beethoven’s violin concerto. He played it beautifully, flawlessly . . . .

“Surely this is not true,” Gregor’s father was thinking. “Surely this is not happening . . . .”

The German was facing him with his eyes closed. His strokes with the bow were precise and absolute.

The music filled the room and flooded out through the open door. It was loud and it was magnificent, but there would be no danger of a crowd forming on the walk to listen, Gregor’s father thought. The presence of the green Mercedes was a guarantee of that.

The music continued for several minutes, and then it abruptly ceased.  The German took the violin from under his chin and held it to his side.

“We will get the manuscripts back,” he suddenly announced. “This will be a museum, so we will need his manuscripts and letters here. They serve no purpose being in Palestine.”

He put the violin gently down, set the bow beside it, and took up his hat.

“You know who I am, do you not, Jan Jaroslav Svoboda?” he asked while resetting his hat on his head.

Gregor’s father nodded.

“You are Reinhard Heydrich, Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia,” he answered.

The cold eyes stared into him once again.

“The Führer has ordered a museum to be established here in Prague,” the German said, pulling on his gloves. “It will be a museum to preserve the memorabilia, artifacts, and possessions of an extinct race, the Jews. You, Jan Jaroslav Svoboda, will establish a Treuhandstelle, a committee, to collect and store books, papers, liturgical  objects, documents, charters, works of Jewish artists, manuscripts of Jewish writers including fictionneedlework, embroidery, sewing, scrolls, and any other objects or material directly or indirectly relating to the Jewish race,” the German said, speaking without drawing a breath.

“Beginning tomorrow, you and the Jewish Treuhandstelle will begin preparations to receive, classify, and archive the material confiscated in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia at the Pinkas Synagogue. In days to come, you will liaise with my office to identify and sort material coming to you from Poland and Germany, including etchings and paintings recently confiscated from Jewish homes and museums in those areas.

“The synagogues of Praguethe Maisel, the Vysoká, the Klaus, the Staronová, the Maisel, the Spanish and the Pinkaswill be opened to you for the sole purpose of storing these and other artifacts. You will provide me with weekly lists, which shall be put into my files until we have a complete registration of all items and they are satisfactorily catalogued . . . . You have some questions?”

Surely something had happened to him and he had become absorbed into Kafka’s world. He was like one of Kafka’s insects on the wall, or he was one of his great moles burrowing in the garden.  How could it be otherwise?

No, he had no questions for the German because he knew there were no answers. He nodded his head slowly and painfully from side to side.

“Tomorrow you will have six Jews from Teresín to assist you. They are art experts. They will remain with you until the project is completed. They will be at Pinkas Synagogue with 14,000 works of children’s art, watercolors, and crayon drawings done in recent weeks in Theresíenstadt. You will begin by tabulating the pictures according to size and to the age of the child. In the next days, you will receive shipments of children’s art from other camps. We shall progress from there.”

He stepped into the doorway, put on his hat, and tapped his baton to his visor. His chauffeur leapt from the driver’s seat to open the car’s rear door.

“Pinkas Synagogue. Tomorrow. Nine A.M.,” the German said as he settled in the back seat. He nodded, and his driver started the car’s engine. And just at that moment, a passing crow flew low and shit on the car’s immaculately polished hood. The white stuff dribbled down the side of the hood as the car backed out of Golden Lane.

Gregor’s father stood in the doorway and asked himself a rhetorical question:  “Was that a stray crow . . . or was that one of Kafka’s?”

* * * * *

Five weeks later, at the very moment that three million men from Hitler’s armies were marching into Russia, the German returned to Zlata Ulicka, as Gregor’s father called it . . . to Alchimistengasse, as the German called it.

To Gregor, it was Golden Lane.

There wasn’t anyone in the coffeehouses who hadn’t heard about the first meeting with the German, or of its purpose, and the information had been immediately transmitted to the Czech government-in-exile in London. A sombre Prague circle waited to hear the world’s reaction to word that the Nazis were about to create a museum to accommodate the artifacts of a race of people they were about to make extinct. But there was no news. The BBC and the American networks remained absolutely silent on the matter.

Gregor’s father had scarcely begun the job of tabulating and stockpiling the pages upon pages of children’s crayon and pencil drawings that were coming to Pinkas Synagogue when he found himself overwhelmed with containers of rare religious books, crates of silver circumcision implements, cases of Torah mantles and rimonim, and carton upon carton of prayer vestments. From the very first day, he and the Jews sent to him by Heydrich found it impossible keep up with the inundation of goods, all of it from synagogues and Jewish museums the Nazis had closed in Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Poland.

And then artifacts began arriving from Belgium, The Netherlands, from France . . . .

He was at the kitchen sink preparing to shave when the green Mercedes stopped at Number 22 Golden Lane a second time. He had removed his beard since returning to Prague to take a new identity, and the process of manipulating a straight razor continued to elude him. He rarely managed to get the task done unscathed, and in recent days he had moved to Kafka’s small kitchen to do it where the light was better.

It was early in the morning, and he had just brushed lather onto his face when the knock came. His door was closed and bolted.

Wearing a full beard of soapy froth, he unbolted the door and swung it open . . . and then he fell back as though lunged at by a viper.

“Good,” the German said, striding into the room. “I am on my way to my office, but I have information. And I have photos and a manuscript for our Kafka museum. Also, I have two Kafka books.”

He moved across the room and put a brown rectangular photo album on the table. Then he strode over to the bookcase with the glass doors.

“The key . . . ,” he said flatly, and stepped aside while Gregor’s father searched in his pockets and eventually got the key out and put it in the lock. It hadn’t become any easier moving in this man’s presence, even though they had spoken briefly inside the Pinkas Synagogue three days earlier when the German had ventured over from his office to hand him a manifest of goods about to arrive by rail from Gdansk.

“I have a copy of Das Schloss, The Castle. It is like new, printed in Leipzig in 1925, and . . . .” He looked at Gregor’s father as though expecting a joyful reaction.

“ . . . And,” he dragged the word out a second time, “I have a like-new 1916 edition of Das Verwandlung, The Metamorphosis . . . .”

If the German was capable of a smile, he may have been attempting one. It wasn’t easy to tell because his thin lips were always set in a straight line. He held the book up for a moment so Gregor’s father could view it, then he put it carefully in the bookcase.

“Apropos of our past conversation seeking words for a Jew to programme for himself in die Egge, it occurs to me that `Self satisfaction will be punished’ would be a suitable choice,” he said, carefully opening both the glass doors.

“Those are Kafka’s words, found in one of his own notebooks. Here, I have these several pages from it in his handwriting.”

He looked into and through the face of the man before him. His eyes were so lacking in feeling they might as well have been made of glass. He put the notebook pages on a shelf in the bookcase and then turned the small key in the lock, removed it, and slipped it into a pocket of his tunic.

Once again, Gregor’s father was baffled by this German with the youthful face and high voice.  As was his habit when confronted by someone he couldn’t understand, he tried imagining this six-foot tall blond man as a suckling infant pressed to his mother’s breast.

When that didn’t help put the German into perspective, he tried imagining him naked, except for his socks, sitting on a flowered chamber pot.

The German stared back, studying his faceor what he could see of it lurking behind the mound of shaving soap. After several long seconds he turned abruptly and strode back to the table. His boots hit the floor hard and the wooden planks squeaked.

“Kafka’s three sisters have been moved to Lodz,” he said stiffly. “They had several photos that will be of interest here.”

Still wearing his gloves, he reached down and opened the cover of the album. “These, they are two photos of Felice Baurer,” he gestured. “She and Kafka were in Berlin together in 1914. They were engaged. In fact they were engaged twice.”

He turned the page.

“And this. This is a photo Kafka sent to her. It is of him when he was a child. On the reverse he says he is five years of age, which he wasn’t. He was perhaps one or two. I have children of my own, I would know.”

He turned the page.

“This one,” he pointed to another photo, “is Melena Jesenska-Polak, his married friend from Poland. She was not a Jew.”

He paused.

“And this one,” he said, jabbing at a photo with a finger. “It is of Kafka at Matliary Sanatorium where he was confined with tuberculosis in 1921. These photos, they will be part of the Kafka exhibit . . . .”

He suddenly flipped the album shut with a quick stab of his gloved finger and stared at the table.

“Where is the Otto violin?”

Gregor’s father stood beside Kafka’s chair. He felt the blood leaving his face for his ankles again.

“I have misplaced it,” he managed to say, his chin and the mound of shaving froth moving simultaneously. “But I am sure I will locate it soon.”

The German’s lips remained tight, but Gregor’s father thought he saw a change in his eyes. There was a flicker. Was it a look of disappointment? Maybe it was, maybe not. It was probably a projection on his part.

Then the spark was gone and the German looked away and pulled at his gloves.

“The number of articles for the Führer’s Jewish museum is mounting daily. We will have a train arriving from the East shortly,” he said in his high-pitched voice.

“It will be necessary for you to come to my office next week to get a list of places that are being prepared to receive the goods. I am currently vetting fifty Prague warehouses that will be used for storage. Our new front in the East has been a success, and obviously we will begin receiving vast quantities of Jewish material from there in due course. You must be prepared . . . .”

He left, forgetting to put the photo album into the bookcase, and he had the only key to it tucked into his top pocket. Gregor’s father reminded himself that he would have to see about getting another one made.

Bolting the door and returning to the kitchen sink, he studied his eyes in the mirror. The beard of shaving soap had hardened on his face. He looked ridiculous.

“Of course you are excited to find a couple of Kafka’s books,” he groused, as though the German was still in the room. “So few survive.  For the past ten years you have been burning all his books . . . .”

The German’s final visit to the house on Golden Lane came the following spring, in May, at a time when the lilacs were again in bloom throughout Prague. It was late afternoon. The slight squeak of the brakes as the green Mercedes convertible stopped at the house, the rap of the baton on the door . . . .

In his left hand he carried a black briefcase, and in his right hand he had a violin case, a slightly battered one that Gregor’s father immediately recognized as his own.

The German bowed his head to avoid the low doorframe and strode quickly across the room to put the violin in its familiar place on the table. He undid the two latches with a dramatic flair and opened the case.

“Your Otto,” he said, stepping back.

“Thank you,” Gregor’s father nodded. “It was foolish of me to have misplaced it. I must have been . . . .”

“Foolish, yes. It was located last night at a coffeehouse called The Cat,” the German interrupted. “You are fortunate you were not there at the time your violin was found, Jan Jaroslav Svoboda.  Our agents uncovered a radio and a transmitter there, and we have arrested the Czech traitors who have been using it to send messages to England. They will be executed, of course.”

His eyes burrowed deeply into those of Gregor’s father, who had been training himself before a mirror not to react to anything the German said.  Emulating the German’s vacuous gaze, he stared at the tall man’s forehead where it met his cap, and he allowed no thought to enter his mind except to think how very young the man was. Thirty-six or seven, he had been told . . . .

The German bent down and picked up his briefcase to put it on the table next to the violin.

“There will come a time when our work here will be finished, and what we have accomplished will be scrutinized from all sides. By historians and scholars, among others,” he said, placing the briefcase upright and holding it tightly between gloved fingers.

“Academicians will surmise that there had to have been a genesis, as indeed there was.”

He began to undo two leather straps and pulled them carefully out of the buckles that held them.

“Eventually they will be forced to acknowledge that it was an idea whose time had come, and they will think upon the responsible individuals with respect and admiration. But acknowledging the correctness of our plan without knowing the details of it would not be faithful to German history, for it is in our character to search until we know all. We are a cultured people.

“To be sure, while the Führer’s museum will be enlightening, there will come a time when our entire programme will be put under a microscope and questions will be asked: How did the plan come about? What man was involved, or were there many? And if there was but a single individual responsible for carrying out the National Socialists’ concept of a Jew-free planet, who was he?

“In that world of the future, of course, there will be no Jews, for with the Jews of Europe gone who would care to be the last Jew? Guilt will see to it that none survive.”

He looked into Gregor’s father’s eyes.

“Ask yourself: What man could live with the knowledge that he was the last Jew?”

Gregor’s father put his weight against Kafka’s armchair and held his breath. He watched transfixed as the German pulled the sides of his briefcase and opened it and then reached in and took out a packet of papers.

“In that world of the future, scientists, sociologists, historians, politicians, bankers, businessmenand yes, anthropologiststhey will gather, as they do, and they will view an entirely changed world. They will approve, and in time they will ask an important question: who set the wheels in motion?”

He moved slowly, taking out two or three large envelopes and placing them on the table.

“The answers will be here,” he said. “There has been a meeting in Berlin, and the solution has been approved.  Die Endlösung has begun . . . .”

He closed his briefcase and began to buckle it.

“These papers will remain in the bookcase,” he said, taking them up and going across the room.  He had the only key, and he opened the glass doors to place the papers among Kafka’s books.

“For history,” he nodded.

Then he locked the doors and again put the key into his top pocket.

“I shall return the day after tomorrow, at eight o’clock sharp,” the German said, “bringing a numbered Kafka book found in a Warsaw booksellers. Unfortunately, I left it at my home. The business at The Cat detained me or I would have had it delivered to you today.”

He lifted his right hand to adjust his hat, turned, then marched out the open doorway. His driver jumped from his position behind the wheel of the Mercedes to open the rear door, the car’s engine was started, it was put into reverse . . . .

And then the German was gone.

Gregor’s father exhaled deeply and slowly sat down in Kafka’s armchair. If it was to be done, he thought, it must be done tomorrow . . . .

* * * * *

In a quiet corner of a park in the English Midlands, in the pleasant Georgian town of Royal Leamington Spa, there is a fountain and a children’s wading pond. Water flows slowly off the curved top of it to dribble down in long, slender streams. If one looks closely, he becomes aware that the thin streams represent silk cords, and the water is actually flowing over a representation of a billowing parachute.

And engraved on the scallops of the parachute are the names of the seven Czech resistance fighters who returned to Czechoslovakia one day in January 1942 to assassinate the Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, Reinhard Tristan Heydrich. The eighth man, the one who disclosed to the Czech commandos the exact route and the precise hour that the German would be passing by in an unguarded open car, has never been revealed. And his name is certainly not engraved on the fountain in Royal Leamington Spa.

The seven Czechs had been in that Warwickshire town for several weeks undergoing commando training. Soon after the Czech government-in-exile in London had received information from Prague that a museum was to be established to contain the relics of an extinct Jewish race, the decision was made to have the men flown home to kill the German.

In retrospect, it was naive to think that the project could have been halted by the killing of a single German, but nonetheless that is what they believed. And one moonless night after the decision was made, the members of the Czech resistance climbed into an unmarked Halifax bomber manned by a Canadian crew at Coventry Airport and headed for a prearranged drop site near the small village of Ležáky in the countryside north of Prague.

To improve their chance of success, the parachutists had divided themselves into three groups called Silver A, Anthropoid, and Silver B, and after a suitable interval the leader of Anthropoid had met with Gregor’s father and it was arranged that a coded message would be left on a photo shop message board when and if he had further information relevant to their mission.

As it happened, there was none for some time. But the day after the Gestapo’s raid on The Cat coffeehouse, Gregor’s father pinned a message to the board at the photo shop and immediately went to Saints Cyril and Methodius Cathedral to wait. Apparently one of the Czechs had been a choirboy there and he knew its arrangement.

At sunset, all seven of the group members showed up, coming into the nave one by one to sit in scattered pews. Contact with Gregor’s father was quickly made, and they retreated to the wardrobe room behind the altar where they huddled. Their voices were muffled by the vestments and choral garments hanging from racks surrounding them.

Gregor’s  father told them of the German’s visit the previous afternoon, and he presented a plan. In general, he said, the intrepid German traveled around the city in his Mercedes without an escort, routinely following the same route to and from his offices at Prague Castle six days a week.

“Alone, with only his driver,” he emphasized.

Time and again the German had boasted that he had nothing to fear because the Czechs had come to appreciate his authority.

“Even dogs,” he had written in a note to his wife that Gregor’s father was to find in the packet of pages he had left in the bookcase at Golden Lane, “seeing how much better we do things than they do, have become subservient.”

Taking a blank page from the back of a missal lying on a table, Gregor’s father sketched a map of the route the German’s car would be taking. To change course from the main thoroughfare to Golden Lane, he said, the driver would have to make a sharp turn at a particular junction. And to do this, the car would have to slow to a virtual crawl. That intersection, he said, would be an ideal place to carry out their plan.

The Czechs agreed, and it was decided that the Anthropoid group of Jozef Gabk and Jan Kubiš would be waiting at that corner the following morning. They said their farewells, shook hands, and Gregor’s father returned to 22 Golden Lane. The Czechs remained in the church: they found its large empty basement a perfect sanctuary.

Dawn broke with a hazy sky and a slight mist at ground level, but it promised to be a mild and pleasant day. The men from the Czech resistance had not slept at all that night, and at day’s first light Gabk left the church to walk alone to the selected site. He had a British officer’s automatic pistol inside his jacket and a hand grenade in each of its pockets. Kubiš waited several minutes more before getting on a priest’s bicycle he had found in the back courtyard. Under his coat he had a Czech pistol given to him in England by an officer in the Czech resistance.

Neither man had any doubt of their plan’s success.

At eight minutes to the hour, Gabk was walking slowly along on the sidewalk and Kubiš was in the boulevard cycling toward the intersection at a leisurely pace. And then the green car appeared, moving a little too fast. The driver double-clutched, then braked hard to make the turn. In the back, the German put a hand up to the side of the door for support. At his feet was his briefcase, and on his lap was a book. He clutched the book as the car swung to the right.

It happened much quicker than either of the Czechs imagined it would.

Gabk pulled out his pistol and dashed toward the car and began shooting wildly into the back seat. Kubiš wasn’t in the position he wanted to be in. He jumped from the bicycle, dropping it against the curb. Pulling out his pistol as he ran, he began shooting at the driver. Then he stopped shooting because he saw Gabk in his line of fire on the opposite side of the car.

The car seemed to lurch forward with a roar, and at that same moment he could see Gabk pulling a grenade from his jacket and throwing it into the back seat. He was thinking they were much too close for that, and he dropped to the ground as the grenade exploded. The earth shook and the car stopped. He rose to his knees clutching his pistol. He expected to see a dead German, but to his amazement the German had pushed open the battered rear door of the car and was standing before him, his pistol in one hand, a book in the other.

Bullets began hitting the cobblestones on either side of him, and Kubiš raised his pistol to fire. But it jammed. He pulled the trigger and nothing happened. He was on his knees in the centre of the road with the German less than five metres away.

“You . . . you Jewish swine!” the German screamed in his high-pitched voice.

He steadied himself and leveled his pistol at Kubiš’s head.

“Don’t you know who I am?” he cried out.

His words reverberated between the stone buildings, and their echo seemed to come back louder. His hat with the shiny brim and the skull and crossbones insignia was in the road at his feet, and he ground his teeth together, aimed his gun, and pulled the trigger.

But his gun jammed too.

“You Jewish pig,” he cried, and he began to wobble.  “You . . . you . . . .

And then he planted his feet apart, raised his left arm and leaned back, and threw the book at Kubiš. It hit him in his chest and dropped to the road.

Kubiš looked at it in astonishment. It was the like-new 1919 edition of Kafka’s Report to the Academy that the German was about to deliver to Golden Lane.

And then, inexplicably, a song ran through Kubiš’s brain, one he had heard through an open window once while passing a country church in England: “Jesus wants you for a sunbeam.”

* * * * *

Sitting in the shade under the umbrella tree, we were both wet with sweat. However much we drank, liquid seemed to bubble out of us as fast as we downed it.

With Gregor’s words still lingering in my head, I stepped up to the cooler to get two more cold bottles of soda.

“So, you see, John, my father was the eighth man,” Gregor said quietly as I sat down and put a wet bottle of cola before him. He raised it, about to take a sip.

Ach jo,” he said quietly. “Ach jo,” he said again, but then he remained silent.

“So, your father was in the underground,” I said slowly.

“Oh, no,” he shook his head. “Not in the underground. He just happened to be there and to know things.”

He sipped loudly.

“I only learned about these things I’ve told you when I was at university. He told me he was there, and he said he knew about the radio transmitter. And he knew the Czechs who came back from England. He told me about the day they shot Heydrich.”

“They killed him, I take it?”

“No. He was like a Cheung Chau centipede that you can cut into a hundred pieces and they all run off in a different direction. And you still can’t kill it, you know. Heydrich was like that.  They shot him and bombed him, and he still didn’t die.

“But the two Czechs thought he was dead, and they ran away and took alleys and so forth to get back to the church. Eventually someone took Heydrich to Balovka Hospital, and then all the top Nazis from Berlin came to Prague, and Heydrich still wouldn’t die. He had bullets and pieces of the grenade in him, but for seven or eight days more he lived.

“But finally he died, of course. Of infections. Pieces of the upholstery from his car were in his wounds.”

Gregor nodded. “And pieces of his uniform. It was the dyes in his uniform that did it. They infected him. That killed him.”

“And the Czechs?”

“The Gestapo found the bicycle in the street,” he said slowly. “Everything like that was registered with the police so it was easy to find out who owned it. It was a girl’s bicycle, belonging to a priest. So they went to Saints Cyril and Methodius Cathedral to talk to the priest, and all the Czechs were there. In the basement. So the SS came, hundreds of them. They came and shot them.

“That’s all,” he said. “That was the end.”

He took out a bent cigarette and I pushed my lighter across the table.

“The Nazis were furious, of course,” Gregor continued. “They killed more than a thousand men in Prague because of Heydrich’s death, and Hitler went crazy and said he’d get even with the Czech people. He said he would wipe a Czech town off the map forever.

“First they had the state funeral for Heydrich, and then the SS trucks went to Lidice, a small village just a little to the north of Prague, maybe fifteen or twenty minutes away by car. The SS rounded up all the men in the village and put them in a barn, and then they burned it down.  When the men tried to escape, the SS shot them. There were nearly two hundred men in the barn.

“All the women of the village were taken away and put in concentration camps, and their children were taken to Germany. No one knows what happened to them. Almost all the women died in the camps. Only a few survived.

“Lidice was blown up and then tractors came and leveled what was left, and in the end there was no more village. When Hitler’s SS were done, there was nothing left. Not a living person, not a chicken or a duck or a pig. Not even a brick.

“And they also did the same thing to the little village of Ležáky. When it was over, they killed more than five thousand Czechs because of Heydrich.”

“But your father?”

“No one knew. He was a Jew, and no one knew it. He was the eighth man, and no one knew it.  All through the war he stayed in Prague doing the work that Heydrich had left him to do, collecting Jewish things and piling them up in the seven synagogues and fifty warehouses. One by one, the Jews sent to work with him were taken away. They didn’t survive.  Only my father survived.”

He paused a long while and looked toward a pink and red pagoda across the path.

“You see,” he finally spoke, “I had just been born. I was a baby, and my father wanted to see Heydrich gone. He had to do that, he told me, because of what the German was doing.

“And because, he said to me, he didn’t want me to be the last Jew on earth . . . .”

His Greatest Generation: The Lessons of John Steinbeck’s World War II Reporting

Image from cover of Roy Simmonds' World War II John Steinbeck biographyIn staid Victorian England, Matthew Arnold, the author of Dover Beach, described journalism as “literature in a hurry.” Six decades and two world wars later, John Steinbeck confirmed Arnold’s lofty assessment of the correspondent’s craft, creating an enduring account of what he saw in Europe and Africa during the darkest days of World War II.

The Greatest Generation Goes to War

A member of the Greatest Generation who wrote and read poetry throughout his life, Steinbeck understood Arnold’s image of “a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night.” In his Steinbeck biography, the poet-novelist Jay Parini points out the acknowledgment by Newsweek magazine that the famous novelist was also a capable journalist, that his “cold grey eyes didn’t miss a trick, that with scarcely any note-taking he soaked up information like a sponge, wrote very fast on a portable typewriter, and became haywire if interrupted.”

Steinbeck understood Arnold’s image of ‘a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night.’

More than a decade after World War II, Viking Press released Once There Was a War, a collection of Steinbeck’s war reporting from June to December 1943—reporting that inserted the 41-year-old author of The Grapes of Wrath into the global madness that began when France and England declared war on Nazi Germany in 1938 and ended seven years later with the surrender of Japan, Germany’s chief ally.

Filing human interest stories in the gritty, humorous style of the American war correspondent Ernie Pyle, Steinbeck was stationed in London before shipping off to North Africa, where he experienced first hand the immediate aftermath of the Allied liberation of southern Italy. By that time Italy, the third element in the Axis triangle, had formally surrendered, although the battle for Nazi-occupied northern Italy would continue into 1944, costing literally countless British, American, and European lives.

Writing Steinbeck Biography in the World War II Years

Although considered by some a minor component of the Steinbeck canon, Once There Was a War nonetheless illustrates how John Steinbeck, working under the most difficult and dangerous professional conditions, was always conscious of leveraging his strengths as a writer engaged with the world. Steinbeck biography written since World War II acknowledges this facet of the author’s diverse career in varied ways.

In The Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer—the Bible of Steinbeck biography—Jackson Benson notes of Steinbeck’s World War II reporting that the author “would not try to compete for the hard news but would work to see things that had been overlooked or to see differently things that had already been reported.” Benson convincingly connects Steinbeck’s qualities as a fiction writer to his journalism: “He would become a correspondent of perspective, just as he had been a novelist of perspective—not telling us new, but seeing it new. In his concern for the commonplace and in his preference for the ordinary soldier, he became in many ways a correspondent much like the war journalist he admired the most, Ernie Pyle.”

‘He became in many ways a correspondent much like the war journalist he admired the most, Ernie Pyle.’

Focusing on a perturbed period of Steinbeck biography in John Steinbeck: The War Years, 1939-1944, Roy Simmonds speculates about the aging author’s ulterior motive in signing on as a front line correspondent at the height of World War II: “There is little doubt that within defined parameters he seized the opportunity to use the dispatches—through the mouths of the servicemen he met, or sometimes writing on their general behalf—to draw attention to many matters he felt needed publicity and urgent rectification.”

‘There is little doubt that within defined parameters he seized the opportunity to use the dispatches—through the mouths of the servicemen he met, or sometimes writing on their general behalf—to draw attention to many matters he felt needed publicity and urgent rectification.’

Whatever his motivation, however, John Steinbeck knew how to enfold moments of simple human existence in a lyricism that rises above the horror of modern slaughter, as almost any sample of his World War II dispatches demonstrates:

“LONDON, July 10, 1943—People who try to tell you what the blitz was like in London start with fire and explosion and then almost invariably end up with some very tiny detail which crept in and set and became the symbol of the whole thing for them.

“’It’s the glass,’ says one man, ‘the sound in the morning of the broken glass being swept up, the vicious, flat tinkle. . . . My dog broke a window the other day and my wife swept up the glass and a cold shiver went over me. It was a moment before I could trace the reason for it.’

“The bombing itself grows vague and dreamlike. The little pictures remain as sharp as they were when they were new.”

. . . .

“On the imaginary line the children stand and watch the cargo come out. . . . How they cluster about an American soldier who has come off the ship! They want gum. Much as the British may deplore the gum-chewing habit, their children find it delightful. There are semi-professional gum beggars among the children.

“’Penny, mister?’ has given way to ‘Goom, mister?’

“When you have gum you have something permanent, something you can use day after day and even trade when you are tired of it. Candy is ephemeral. One moment you have candy, and the next moment you haven’t. But gum is real property.

“The grubby little hands are held up to the soldier and the chorus swells.’Goom, mister?’”

. . . .

“MEDITERRANEAN THEATER, October 6, 1943—You can’t see much of a battle. Those paintings reproduced in history books which show long lines of advancing troops are either idealized or else times and battles have changed. The account in the morning papers of the battle of yesterday was not seen by the correspondent, but was put together from reports.

“What the correspondent really saw was dust and the nasty burst of shells, low bushes and slit trenches. He lay on his stomach, if he had any sense, and watched ants crawling among the little sticks on the sand dune, and his nose was so close to the ants that their progress was interfered by it.”

John Steinbeck and Dad: Why World War III is Unthinkable

As John Steinbeck noted in his introduction, his World War II dispatches for the New York Herald Tribune record events as they occurred. “But on reading this reportage,” Steinbeck adds, “my memory becomes alive to the other things, which also did happen and were not reported. That they were not reported was partly a matter of orders, partly traditional, and largely because there was a huge and gassy thing called the War Effort.”

Roy Simmonds, the author of the only Steinbeck biography by an Englishman and a survivor of the Blitz, notes that Steinbeck understood but resented the “huge and gassy thing” produced by the fog of war: “Talking to [enlisted] men, Steinbeck discovers that what also troubles many of them are the lies, both of commission and omission, being fed to the folks back home.”

Steinbeck understood but resented the ‘huge and gassy thing’ produced by the fog of war.

From the body of the writer’s World War II reporting, one thing can be said for certain: John Steinbeck chronicled and explored humanity’s most destructive behavior with the same honesty and intensity that he invested in mankind’s most noble pursuits. Despite his reluctance to revisit his war reporting for publication in 1958—a reticence confirmed by every Steinbeck biography of note—the dispatches he produced for immediate domestic consumption stand as an enduring testament, not only for the Greatest Generation but for every generation that followed.

The dispatches he produced for immediate domestic consumption stand as an enduring testament, not only for the Greatest Generation but for every generation that followed.

My father-in-law, a proud World War II naval veteran named Jerry Hollingsworth, believes that another global war is simply unthinkable. In a recent message he echoed John Steinbeck, who explained this belief in 1958, in the introduction to Viking’s collection of his World War II dispatches:

“The next war, if we are so stupid as to let it happen, will be the last of any kind. There will be no one left to remember anything. And if that is how stupid we are, we do not, in a biologic sense, deserve to survive.”