WSJ Historically Speaking: Undying Defeat: The Power of Failed Uprisings

From the Warsaw Ghetto to the Alamo, doomed rebels live on in culture

John Wayne said that he saw the Alamo as ‘a metaphor for America’. PHOTO: ALAMY

Earlier this month, Israel commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 1943. The annual Remembrance Day of the Holocaust and Heroism, as it is called, reminds Israelis of the moral duty to fight to the last.

The Warsaw ghetto battle is one of many doomed uprisings across history that have cast their influence far beyond their failures, providing inspiration to a nation’s politics and culture.

Nearly 500,000 Polish Jews once lived in the ghetto. By January 1943, the Nazis had marked the surviving 55,000 for deportation. The Jewish Fighting Organization had just one machine gun and fewer than a hundred revolvers for a thousand or so sick and starving volunteer soldiers. The Jews started by blowing up some tanks and fought on until May 16. The Germans executed 7,000 survivors and deported the rest.

For many Jews, the rebellion offered a narrative of resistance, an alternative to the grim story of the fortress of Masada, where nearly 1,000 besieged fighters chose suicide over slavery during the First Jewish-Roman War (A.D. 66–73).
The story of the Warsaw ghetto uprising has also entered the wider culture. The title of Leon Uris’s 1961 novel “Mila 18” comes from the street address of the headquarters of the Jewish resistance in their hopeless fight. Four decades later, Roman Polanski made the uprising a crucial part of his 2002 Oscar-winning film, “The Pianist,” whose musician hero aids the effort.

Other doomed uprisings have also been preserved in art. The 48-hour Paris Uprising of 1832, fought by 3,000 insurrectionists against 30,000 regular troops, gained immortality through Victor Hugo, who made the revolt a major plot point in “Les Misérables” (1862). The novel was a hit on its debut and ever after—and gave its world-wide readership a set of martyrs to emulate.

Even a young country like the U.S. has its share of national myths, of desperate last stands serving as touchstones for American identity. One has been the Battle of the Alamo in 1836 during the War of Texas Independence. “Remember the Alamo” became the Texan war cry only weeks after roughly 200 ill-equipped rebels, among them the frontiersman Davy Crockett, were killed defending the Alamo mission in San Antonio against some 2,000 Mexican troops.

The Alamo’s imagery of patriotic sacrifice became popular in novels and paintings but really took off during the film era, beginning in 1915 with the D.W. Griffith production, “Martyrs of the Alamo.” Walt Disney got in on the act with his 1950s TV miniseries, “ Davy Crockett : King of the Wild Frontier.” John Wayne’s 1960 “The Alamo,” starring Wayne as Crockett, immortalized the character for a generation.

Wayne said that he saw the Alamo as “a metaphor of America” and its will for freedom. Others did too, even in very different contexts. During the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson, whose hometown wasn’t far from San Antonio, once told the National Security Council why he believed U.S. troops needed to be fighting in Southeast Asia: “Hell,” he said, “Vietnam is just like the Alamo.”

WSJ Historically Speaking: The More-Bitter-Than-Sweet History of Sugar

‘If sack [wine] and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked,” says the rollicking Sir John Falstaff in Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part 1.” That was a more innocent time. Nowadays, books such as Gary Taubes’s “The Case Against Sugar” have linked it to many of the world’s health crises, including diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: A British Milestone in the Fight for Freedom

Photo: ERASMO VASQUEZ LENDECHY/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Photo: ERASMO VASQUEZ LENDECHY/WIKIMEDIA COMMON

The British officially abolished slavery throughout their empire on Aug. 1, 1834, freeing some 800,000 Africans from bondage. The date should be forever commemorated—but so should slavery’s own history of resistance and rebellion.

That slaves have always found ways to rebel is reflected in the earliest surviving legal texts. In the 21st century B.C., King Ur-Nammu of Ur, an ancient city in what is now Iraq, proclaimed that “if a slave escapes from the city limits and someone returns him, the owner shall pay two shekels to the one who returned him.”

As slavery became more deeply ingrained in society, so did the nature of the resistance. The Greeks were severe toward rebellious slaves. But no society was as cruel or inventive as Sparta. Having subjugated the neighboring Messenians into helotry in the seventh century B.C. (helots were the property of the state), the Spartans inflicted a reign of terror on them: During annual culls, young warriors were encouraged to hunt and kill the strongest helots.

A catastrophic earthquake in 464 B.C. prompted a short-lived rebellion, but the helots remained trapped in their wretched existence for another century. Finally, another opportunity to revolt came in 371 B.C. after the city-state of Thebes defeated Sparta at the Battle of Leuctra. Aided by the victorious Thebans, the Messenians rose up and drove the Spartans from their land.

Continue reading…

The Huffington Post: ‘Belle’: An Austenesque with a Racial Twist

By Regina Weinreich

The name of this utterly charming movie conjures images of the Disney cartoon feature with a brunette cartoon star singing in the library. Dido Belle, however, was a real life mixed race woman, smart enough to have had a career in the law, but for 18th century England, she went far. The talented Amma Asante’s movie is an Austenesque comedy of manners, keenly involved with who shall marry whom, and whose fortune is more plump than so and so’s social standing, but here’s the delicious twist: Belle is desirably financially endowed, but as a mulatto, and illegitimate, she is of dubious position. Thoughtful and daring, she influences an important decision, changing the course of British history.

Born in a slum to a black woman and a high-born white navy captain (Matthew Goode), Belle’s fate takes a turn when her father takes charge of her, and brings her to his family’s stately mansion. There, surrogate parents, Lord and Lady Mansfield (excellent Tom Wilkinson and a witty Emily Watson), manage Belle’s education and upbringing. Her cousin Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon) is a constant playmate. Belle’s father disappears early on, and in many ways this romance becomes a father-daughter piece, with Wilkinson beaming proud of his ward as Belle shows intelligence, not only in helping to adjudicate a
famous legal case involving the Zong slave ship vs. an insurance company, but also insisting that when she marries, her race would not be an issue of conciliation and embarrassment. Sam Reid plays the suitor, a kind of Mr. Darcy.

At a recent lunch at la Grenouille, hosted by British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant and W Magazine’s Stefano Tonchi, Phyllicia Rychard, Star Jones, Tamron Hall, and others were introduced to director Amma Asante and her leading actress, Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Diners also heard historical novelist Amanda Foreman flesh out the legalities of the Zong slave ship matter. Foreman, originator of the popular and entertaining House of Speakeasy nights, where writers are invited to extrapolate on a theme, knows how to make history and literature engaging and fun. The discussion went down with the ease of the delicious striped bass: in the case of Belle, and the lovely actress who plays her, a refreshing gem in the season of sequels and action hero blockbusters.

The Huffington Post: Survival in Pre-Civil War South: 12 Years a Slave Honored at the Lotos Club

By Regina Weinreich

The subject of race was addressed head on at a luncheon celebrating the film “12 Years a Slave,” easily the film of the year in an awards season gathering momentum. “I’m a black man, as if you didn’t notice, and part of the global identity of slavery” said director Steve McQueen on a panel led by Amanda Foreman at the Lotos Club on Tuesday. The director was seated between two of his stars Chitwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o and in front of guests who included the luncheon’s host George C. Wolfe, Geoffrey Fletcher, Spike Lee, Thulani Davis, Walter Mosley, and many more of the city’s cultural and industry elite, but the context of McQueen’s remark was an answer to a question about his being a British citizen making art of a particularly American experience, and embarrassment. With family from the West Indies, he pointed out, we are all part of a diaspora, and that understanding makes the horrors of plantation life witnessed in his powerful movie all the more dreadful, and close to home no matter what your color or ethnicity.

Others attending included the actors Tovah Feldshuh, now in “Pippin,” and Nikki James, Tony winner for her work in “Book of Mormon.” James, soon returning to “Mormon,” and slated to play Eponine in the coming revival of “Les Mis,” said she had read for the part of Patsy, the love object of the cruel, psychopath plantation owner played by Michael Fassbinder. While James acknowledged that it is always a disappointment when a part goes to someone else, she admired Lupita Nyong’o’s work as Patsy, especially as this is the young actress’ first film and she was chosen fresh out of Yale. Beaten and tortured, Patsy picks cotton by day and prays for death by night. One of the most heartbreaking scenes is when Solomon (Ejiofor) leaves the plantation, a free man at last, but he leaves her, a soul mate, behind.

In many ways, the story of Solomon Northrup, based on his memoir of the same title, who, as a free man was kidnapped and sold into slavery, has a happy ending. He does return to family and loved ones. But Patsy as a character is emblematic of the huge numbers that never lived free lives. Despite the relief of seeing Solomon with a grandson named for him, the searing images of where he has been are unforgettable.

One of the movie’s producers, Dede Gardner (she’s partners at Plan B with Brad Pitt who plays a heroic role both in the film as a Canadian abolitionist, and beyond, getting the film financed and green lit) noted that one of her jobs was protecting the film, fighting the fear that the subject is not commercial, is too difficult in its most extreme violent moments. Gardner is clearly building a career with fine films that have this edge. Her current project is a movie of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” starring Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts. As in matters of race, the politics of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980’s, pose questions of conscience and humanity that we are all only beginning to address.