In the Garden of Beasts; Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berli


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The Garden of Beasts in the title of Erik Larson’s book refers to the inhabitants of Berlin’s Tiergarten, the park in central Berlin that once served as the hunting grounds of the local aristocracy and was stocked with all kinds of animals. It also, of course, refers to the Nazi regime in Germany.

This is a thoroughly-researched documentary account of the experiences of a mild-mannered American history professor, William E. Dodd who, together with his wife and two children, both in their early twenties, embarked on a four-and-a-half-year stint in Berlin as the U.S. Ambassador to Germany. The story is told through the family’s letters, journals, and memoranda and also draws on the generally-known events of the time, starting with Dodd’s appointment in 1933, the year that marked Hitler’s ‘ascent from chancellor to absolute tyrant.’ By virtue of his ambassadorial position he and his family had access to, and mixed socially with, leading members of the Nazi party, and were able to gain first-hand knowledge of people and events.

Although orginially from a poor family, William Dodd had studied at university, first in Virginia and then in Leipzig in the late nineteenth century. He had acquired a knowledge of the German language and love for the country and its people, and was therefore considered by President Roosevelt to be a suitable candidate for the post of ambassador to Germany, despite opposition from the State Department, many of whose staff were Ivy League graduates from wealthy backgrounds and regarded Dodd as an ‘outsider.’

Initially the Dodd family was enchanted by the atmosphere of optimism and purposefulness that seemed to have overtaken the German nation under its new leadership, but gradually news of brutality towards individuals and groups on one pretext or another – they were Jews, they had failed to give the Nazi salute, etc. – began to accumulate, and the ambassador became ever more disillusioned with the regime.

Dodd’s daughter, Martha, who was something of a social butterfly, frequented night clubs and fancy restaurants and also conducted alliances with various German officials. Her main romantic attachment, however, was to Boris Winogradov, an attaché at the Soviet embassy. This eventually led her to embark on a tour of Russia, which left her disappointed with that country’s drabness and poverty. The NKVD attempted to recruit Martha as a spy on Russia’s behalf, but failed. Boris was recalled to Russia and eventually executed for reasons that remain unclear. After returning to the USA, Martha met and married an American businessman and went to live in New York.

While the book concentrates primarily on the events that took place in the family’s first year in Germany, it was the incident known as the ‘Night of the Long Knives,’ in July 1934, when Ernst Rohm, the head of the S.A. and dozens of his colleagues were murdered in cold blood, that triggered the outright distaste for the regime exhibited by Ambassador Dodd. As he held an official diplomatic post this put him in an invidious position, and he was ultimately defined as ‘persona non grata’ by the German government.

After being recalled from his post, in 1938, Dodd made a point of travelling throughout the USA, warning of the danger presented by Hitler, his visceral animosity towards Jews, his militarism and his expansionist aims. He also spoke out fiercely against American isolationism, but his voice went unheeded, to a great extent because of the inherent opposition to him in the State Department.

No less fascinating than the book itself are Larson’s afterword and notes, which give the reader a glimpse into the cost in personal anguish that researching the book represented for the author. In referring to Ian Kershaw’s seminal study of Hitler he states that he had to keep the book face down on his desk in order not to have to start each day by looking at ‘those hate-filled eyes.’ This book is truly a tour de force, bringing a dark period in history to life in a unique and fascinating way, and casting fresh light on a period about which much has been written.



A Curious Coincidence and a Visit to Yad Vashem


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 Yad Vashem2

The anniversary of the Pogrom of 9th November 1938, otherwise known as Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, is marked every year by Jews all over the world. It is not a religious occasion, but does nevertheless serve to unite Jewish communities in recalling the horrors of the Holocaust as exemplified by that one occasion in which over 1,700 synagogues and prayer rooms all over Germany and Austria were burned, pillaged and destroyed. Thousands of Jewish businesses were damaged, and Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps. The coordinated and violent effort to destroy the basis of Jewish life in Germany served as the ultimate wake-up call for the Jewish population there, and triggered the emigration of those Jews who were able to do so.

Every year Israel’s Association of Jews originally from Central Europe (i.e., mainly Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia) organizes a memorial service to mark the event, and this is held at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. When my parents were alive they would attend this event, but I had other concerns and never found the time to go. This year, however, I decided to participate, and I found myself in the company of many people like myself, the Second Generation of Holocaust survivors, as well as a class of teenagers who had come from one of Israel’s schools.

The programme of the event was long and varied, starting with a brief service and wreath-laying ceremony in the Hall of Remembrance, and followed by a series of talks and lectures by actual Holocaust survivors as well as scholars and writers talking about specific aspects of that time. One particularly interesting lecture described the work of Charlotte Salomon, whose paintings depict her life, first in Berlin and then in the south of France, where she was eventually captured and then deported to Auschwitz. I knew about her work, having seen it in London several years ago and even have the very detailed catalogue of it, but it was nonetheless moving to hear Ms. Judith Shendar, the art curator at Yad Vashem, talk about the artist’s life and work.

In between the various lectures singer Shuli Natan went up on stage with her guitar and played and sang. It was Shuli Natan who made Naomi Shemer’s song ‘Jerusalem of Gold’ famous in the period around the Six Day War of 1967, and her voice is still strong and moving, albeit an octave or two lower now. The singer told the audience that her family was originally from Hamburg (like mine), having emigrated there in the sixteenth century to escape the Inquisition in Portugal. She ended the occasion by playing that self-same song, this time with the audience’s participation.

I used the opportunity, once the event was over, to visit the Yad Vashem library, having learned from reading the joint autobiography of Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, that there were lists of Jews deported to concentration camps by the Nazis in German-occupied France. A few years ago I learned that my mother’s aunt and uncle, Hedwig and Jacob Hirsch, and their three grown-up sons, Sami, Rudi and Kurt, had fled from Germany to France but had all disappeared there. Nothing was known about what happened to them but by a curious coincidence several years ago I met an elderly lady, a painter whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, who told me that she had been engaged to one of them (Rudi, I think), and that they had maintained contact while he was in France and she was in hiding in the Netherlands. She was eventually captured and sent to Theresienstadt, but survived and eventually moved to Israel. I met her (in 1990) at a concert given at Yad Vashem to commemorate the musicians who had been active in Theresienstadt. Because my paternal grandmother had been sent there from Hamburg, and also perished there, I have a special interest in that place.

I gave her a lift from Yad Vashem (who isn’t going to pick up an elderly lady on crutches who is hitch-hiking?) and we agreed to meet for coffee in town. While we were chatting about art and painting and such I happened to mention that one of my relatives, Joseph (‘Boujik’) Hirsch was a fairly well-known artist in Israel, whereupon she exclaimed ‘I was engaged to his cousin!’ That was Rudi, and from her I learned what a wonderful person he had been, and how confident he and his family had been that they would survive the war. My mother and other relatives had also told me about that family and what a terrible loss their passing represented for the family. That lady died a few years ago and I have no way of finding her name.

With the help of one of the librarians at Yad Vashem I traced the documents detailing the route taken by the three brothers, separately from their parents, as the Germans kept detailed lists of all those deported. And so, from the hundreds of pages giving the names, date of birth, place of birth and occupation of each person in every Transport I now know that on 10th August 1942 Sami, Rudi and Kurt Hirsch, aged 31, 26 and 22 respectively, were put on Transport no. 17 from Gurs to Drancy, and thence to Auschwitz, and that their parents, Hedwig and Jacob, aged 54 and 57 followed the same route in Transport no. 40 on 3rd November that year.

May their memories be blessed.

‘The Nightingale,’


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photo (23)

I picked this book up in the local bookshop thinking it would make good holiday reading. It did, but it’s not exactly the sort of light reading one takes along to read on the beach. The tale it tells of France under German occupation, the ‘exodus’ of thousands of Parisians from the capital, the division of France into an occupied zone and a supposedly ‘free’ zone under the Vichy government has been told many times, and often in vivid terms (vide Irene Nemirovsky’s ‘Suite Francaise’), but in ‘The Nightingale’ we find ourselves face-to-face with the harsh realities of the situation on an almost personal basis.

In ‘The Nightingale’ we come to know two sisters who have grown up in different environments and made different lives for themselves. Vianne, the elder of the two, has a husband and a child and lives a peaceful life in rural France. Her rebellious younger sister, Isabelle, has run away from countless boarding schools and it is while she is in Paris, having been expelled from the latest in the series, that the Germans invade France, and its inhabitants set out on the long trek to the south and centre of the country. While trying to get to her sister’s home in central France Isabelle meets Gaetan, a young man who helps her and with whom she falls in love.

But the events that take place in occupied France prevent them from forming a permanent relationship and it is initially as a courier for the Resistance and later in other, more dangerous, capacities, that Isabelle is occupied during the war years. Without wanting to give too much away, I will limit myself to saying that all the horrors of the war, the billeting of German soldiers in French homes, the barbarity of the Nazis’ treatment of civilians and military persons alike, the need to help downed Allied airmen escape to safety across the Pyrenees, the privations and denial of basic commodities to the local population are described in riveting – and sometimes harrowing – detail. Anyone who has read Caroline Moorhead’s book ‘A Train in Winter’ will not be surprised by the events described in the book, even though they still arouse horror and distress, especially in relation to characters fpr whom we have learned to care.

The fate of the Jews of France is also described in considerable detail, as seen through the eyes of the general population, and it is their reactions to these events that both thrill and sadden the reader. The book focuses to a great extent on the role played by women in enduring and combatting the occupation of France, and its conclusion, which recounts the belated recognition by the French authorities of their contribution, serves to provide some solace for the reader’s aching heart.


Consulting the Oracle


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A brief trip to nearby Greece, or more specifically Athens, yielded a plethora of impressions, experiences and delights that could provide material for a dozen posts like this.

Of course, setting foot on the very ground which was once the home of gods and goddesses, heroes, mythical creatures, and the famous oracle of Delphi is enough to send a shiver down anyone’s spine. However, one’s first glimpse of Athens, which is a sprawling modern city with 4.5 million inhabitants, is something of a disappointment. The fairly mundane impression it makes reminded me of some of the seedier neighbourhoods of Haifa, with many shuttered storefronts, graffiti on every available surface, and a population evidently striving to make ends meet.

And yet, at night, from the rooftop restaurant of our hotel, there on the opposite hilltop stood the Acropolis and the Parthenon in all their ancient glory, illuminated in order to display their grandeur. Luckily, the darkness hid the ugly buildings of modern Athens that lay between us and that sacred site. The following day we hastened to make our way up the Acropolis, accompanied by other tourists from all over the world and speaking every language under the sun. The panorama over the city and the surrounding countryside that the hilltop with its ancient stones affords is truly impressive. One can understand why that particular spot was chosen for the structure that constituted the religious and administrative centre of the city-state that was the dominant power in the region for several centuries in antiquity.

The culture of ancient Greece, namely, the philosophy, system of government (democracy), literature, art, sculpture, crafts, architecture, theatre and music, were considered by the ancient Romans to represent the highest achievements in those fields, and although their military prowess overcame that of the Greeks their culture aspired to imitate theirs, and that, of course, is the sincerest form of flattery. Still today we consider the culture of Ancient Greece to be among the highest achievements of humankind.

After spending two days scouring Athens’ archaeological museum, with its myriad treasures from all over Greece (except Crete, which holds on to its heritage), including the extensive gold artifacts from Mycenae discovered by archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, we decided to venture a little further afield. Our first excursion, was to Cape Sounion and the Temple of Poseidon (of which very little is left), driving along the beautiful southern coast which hugs the Mediterranean sea and is reminiscent of the French Riviera. The remains of the temple stand atop a promontory that dominates the surrounding area as well as the surrounding sea, as is only fitting for Poseidon, the god of the sea.

Our next excursion was to Mount Parnassus and Delphi, the site of the Temple of Apollo and the Oracle. How could our legs not tremble as we ascended this sacred spot, the centre of the world? According to the legend, Apollo marked it as ‘the navel of the world,’ the omphalos, and the small museum adjacent to the site contains a large egg-shaped sculpture purporting to show just that. Sadly, the oracle and its tradition disappeared from the world with the rise of Christianity, but the site remains to remind us of the ancient myths and beliefs that once reigned supreme.

There are many fine sculptures in the museum there as well as in the one in Athens, and in many others which we didn’t get to. In them one can find depictions of the human form in all its glory, the work of artists of the highest caliber, inspiring a sense of awe and admiration. These works of art are among the most magnificent achievements of humankind, and we cannot but be grateful to the hands that created them as well as to those that have enabled them to be preserved for posterity and displayed for our enjoyment and delectation today.

Music and Nature




No end of composers have been inspired by nature, and have gone on to inspire countless audiences in turn. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, and the French nineteenth century composers are just a few examples of this.

But the composer whose music is above all the embodiment of nature is Gustav Mahler, and I’m writing this because my mind is still reeling from hearing the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra’s stunning performance of his Third Symphony last week.

As is often the case with Mahler, the usual format of the orchestra has to be augmented with additional brass players (trumpets, trombones, tubas), two harps, five or six tympanists and, of course, huge string and wind sections. When they all play fortissimo together the effect can be overpowering, and I was not the only member of the audience who looked up at the roof of the auditorium at the Jerusalem Theatre at those points to see if it was about to take off and fly away. But it didn’t, thankfully.

Throughout the symphony we hear echoes of nature, and in fact of all creation, with forests and fields, harmony and dissonance, and even war and peace, evoked by the various sections of the orchestra. This is achieved by skilfull deployment of the orchestra in addition to the sound of real tubular bells at one point and a children’s choir imitating the sound of bells at another (not really nature, I know, but natural sounds all the same). The movement, in which the children’s choir is intertwined with the singing of the women’s choir provides some sublimely intricate and inspiring moments.

Putting this massive operation together is a mammoth undertaking, and the panoply of sounds, effects and surprise twists and turns was masterfully conducted – or rather managed – by maestro Frédéric Chaslin.

All Mahler’s symphonies contain one or another aspect seeking to imitate or suggest nature. I was fortunate to grow up in a household many years ago where 78 rpm. records of his First Symphony were played to me from early childhood. And so I could recognize that the symphony starts with an evocation of the forest waking up, with birdsong and hunters in the distance. I also took delight in listening to the third movement depicting what my father explained to me was a mournful funeral procession meeting a joyous wedding procession, with the encounter between the two creating an amusing mixture of sounds that is almost cacophonic.

In many of his symphonies, whether describing nature or not, Mahler treads a fine line between cacophony and harmony, but almost always resolves the dissonance by finding the path to a happy solution. Mahler’s personal life was tragic, with a troubled marriage, professional difficulties and the death of his eldest daughter at an early age, but his genius enabled him to transmute his suffering into heavenly music, and that is one of the features that marks his music as truly great.

The same is true of many other composers and artists, of course, but that is another story.

D.I.Y. in the Publishing World


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Levi Koenig

In my experience, writing a book is relatively easy. Choose your subject, write one page every day for a year, and hey presto, after a year you have a book that is about 365 pages long. Agreed, it may take another year or two to edit, correct, amend, etc., but essentially that’s all there is to it.

These days it’s also fairly easy to publish a book. If you can’t find a publisher but are prepared to invest some time and effort (or money), you can get published with relative ease by uploading your book to Amazon, and letting it take its chances from there.

But marketing, yes, marketing, aye, (or perhaps aiee!), there’s the rub.

There are ‘experts’ out there who claim that for a fee they can market your book and even get it onto the bestseller list. But that is debatable. Sometimes these things work and sometimes they don’t. Not even the leading publishers always know which books will sell and which won’t. Just think how many prominent writers have been rejected by publishers, including Marcel Proust and A.K.Rowling, to name but a few.

So it seemed like a good idea to try and do a bit of marketing myself. Among the various sites that promote books and reading there are several that organize promotions, free giveaways and other marketing ploys. Amazon itself is one of the foremost among these, but it is far from being alone.

Disappointed by the weak sales of my latest novel, ‘Levi Koenig, A Contemporary King Lear,’ I decided to attempt one such D.I.Y. marketing ploy. My previous novel, ‘Time Out of Joint, the Fate of a Family,’ did quite well when it was first published over a year ago, and has been selling steadily, albeit not spectacularly, ever since. Sales on Amazon consist primarily of downloads of ebooks as well as pages read in the framework of a borrowing arrangement. Paperback versions of books are also sold, but I’m not aware of any similar promotions offered by Amazon through its Createspace arm, where paperbacks are on sale.

As well as promoting recently published books, the site known as Goodreads offers authors and publishers the chance of specifying a number of books they are prepared to give away for free, and also to offer an additional enticement in the form of a prize, if they so wish.

I did not so wish, but decided that in order to encourage interest in ‘Levi Koenig, A Contemporary King Lear,’ I would give away twenty copies of the book in the course of a week. I didn’t realize at the time that this involved taking hard copies, putting them into envelopes, schlepping these to the post office and sending them to various parts of the world. It so happens that I did have about fifty hard copies of the book in my possession, so that would not have been too difficult to manage. But suddenly twenty books seemed a very large number to deal with, so I quickly adjusted it to ten, and excluded Australia from the list of countries to which I was prepared to send them, leaving Europe, the USA and Canada in the running.

While I was waiting for the result of the campaign I agonized for days on end. What if no one at all wanted a copy, even if it was free? What would this say about
me and my book? Would I ever be able to hold my head up again, or even think about writing another word?

A couple of days ago I received the result and to my surprise over 500 people entered the competition. I was sent a list of ten names and addresses and told to send a copy to each one. So, for the past hour or so I’ve been addressing envelopes, putting books in them (making sure to sign each book before doing so), and tomorrow they’ll all get sent off to the lucky winners. I hope they enjoy the result, and that they might even write nice reviews on Amazon.

Whether this will help to boost sales of the book remains to be seen, but it’s been an interesting and gratifying experience. Even if I don’t get to sell any more books as a result, the project has helped to boost my self-esteem. After all, five hundred and twenty-nine potential readers are not to be sneezed at.





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 Philh. concert

“Non!” Screamed the rather large and overdressed lady sitting in the row near me as the audience burst into spontaneous applause between two movements of the piece of baroque chamber music that had just been played.

Last summer we attended several concerts in the charming Romanesque church of the village of Boussac in central France. In the summer months four or five musicians from the Paris Symphony Orchestra come to the region to enjoy the peace and quiet of the countryside and also to give a few chamber concerts for the benefit of the local populace. They are all excellent musicians, and it seems that one of them, a talented cellist who also gives explanations of the music before each piece, is originally from the region, and this partly explains their presence there each summer.

The rather large village of Boussac is unusual among the villages of the region. Like most of them, it has an ancient church, but it is distinguished by its imposing fourteenth century castle perched atop a steep rock overlooking the River Creuse that gives the region its name. It also seems to have a population that is particularly keen on classical music, and the village holds its own series of well-attended chamber concerts every summer.

The custom of clapping one’s hands to display approbation and appreciation of something seems to be very ancient, possibly even elemental, in human behavior. Little children do it spontaneously, and are happy when their actions result in the applause of others. I have noticed that in recent years, in the concerts I have attended in Israel, the applause at the end of a work is sometimes accompanied by shrieks and whistles, which apparently are a positive sign. This is something new to me, but seems to be considered a sign of approval. Well, so be it.

Now, what was surprising was the response of the musicians to the applause in between movements in Boussac – a behavior pattern that is not customary in major concert halls and might be considered by some concert-goers as demonstrating ignorance of the correct way to behave in that situation. That, indeed, was the case in the instance to which I’m referring, and obviously the lady in question wanted to show her superior knowledge of what is the right way to show one’s appreciation of a performance.

The cellist, who had by now established a genuine rapport with the audience, held up his hand and made the following announcement (in French, naturally): “Applauding is a sign of approval, so please feel free to show your approval even between the movements of the pieces of music we play.”

The audience was mollified, but the stout lady was mortified, and of course the applause burst out with renewed vigor subsequently.

It’s true, it is not considered de rigeur to applaud between the movements of a piece of music, but it seems to be happening ever more frequently. At last night’s concert given by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in Jerusalem it could be heard between the movements of Schumann’s piano concerto, played brilliantly by Rudolf Buchbinder, and it was also in evidence at a concert we attended at St. Martin’s in the Fields in London last month.

Maybe concert-goers’ mores and manners are changing and spontaneous applause between movements is catching on to become a worldwide phenomenon. Or perhaps standards of audience behavior are dropping. And I certainly have a bone to pick with various aspects of audience behavior at concerts.

But that is another subject altogether.

Margaret Raphael

Margaret with her children Jaqueline and Georges

Margaret with her children Jaqueline and Georges

Three years ago, when I was looking for someone with whom I could converse in German, an acquaintance put me in touch with Margaret Raphael. After a brief telephone conversation I made my way to her home in one of Jerusalem’s established neighbourhoods, and we began a friendship that ended only last week, with her death at the age of 96.

Yes, it was hard to believe that the lively, intelligent woman whom I visited once a week was already 93 when we began our relationship. I feel I can permit myself to call it a relationship, friendship even, because despite the difference in our ages (I am about the same age as her children) we were able to discuss dozens of different subjects and she always had something interesting and insightful to say.

Margaret was a delightful, quick-witted and intelligent lady whose mind remained clear right until the end. She loved reading, and there were always several books on all kinds of subjects, mainly in German but also in English, at her side. Sometimes we would talk about a book she or I had been reading, and sometimes about various aspects of our families, the general situation, or any subject that came to mind. She always made sure to have some little delicacy – cake or biscuits or chocolate – for us to have with the coffee which always accompanied our meeting.

Margaret was born and brought up in Basle, Switzerland, and came to live in Israel in the wake of her three married children, Claude, Georges and Jaqueline, who were living in Israel. Together with their partners, children and grandchildren they formed a warm, loving family, making Margaret the materfamilias of a considerable tribe. Although she lived to a good age and had a pleasant life on the whole, her life was not without tragedy as her husband died suddenly at a relatively young age a few years before she moved to Israel. Nonetheless, Margaret persisted with the plan to ‘make Aliya,’ remained in her adopted country, and did what she could to adapt and make the best of the situation.

At the age of 93 Margaret was still attending light exercise classes at ‘Delet Petuha,’ the cultural centre for retired people in Rehavia, and would stay on for a lesson in English. In previous years she was a keen participant in the oil-painting classes given there, producing many proficient paintings. Her favourite subject was flowers, but she also painted landscapes and still lifes, and had an excellent sense of colour and form. She told me with a smile that all her paintings were “genuine Raphaels.”

Until she was 92 Margaret (known as Gigi to her friends) lived on her own in her third-floor flat with no lift, volunteered for fifteen years at Yad Sarah and the Yad Lakashish gift shop and was completely independent. But then a fall left her with a broken hip and after surgery and a spell in hospital her mobility was limited. As is often the case here in Israel, she was obliged to take a live-in carer, and was fortunate to obtain the multi-talented Braian, who comes from the Philippines.

As time went by and our conversations ranged over ever-wider topics I came to know the various members of her family from her accounts. Thus, I followed the ups and downs of her son, Claude, who was suffering from cancer. No mother can look with equanimity on her child’s suffering, and it was obvious to me that Margaret felt great distress at her son’s illness, but she tried always to remain optimistic and positive. When he died about a year ago it was obviously terribly hard for her, but she did not allow herself to wallow in self-pity, and told me that she was glad he was not suffering any longer.

Even when she was well into her nineties Margaret would often look after some of her fourteen or more great-grandchildren. I met two of them who often visited the municipal library that was situated near her house. The two very well-behaved children, a boy aged about six and a girl of ten, would come into the house (the door was never locked), and occupy themselves with the books they had borrowed, or sit at the table to draw, and Margaret would exchange a few words with them in Hebrew. Although she claimed that she could not speak Hebrew, she did in fact speak it quite well and without very many grammatical errors.

Her funeral was attended by a great many people from all walks of life, and she was eulogized by her daughter and one of her grandsons. It was obvious that she was greatly loved by all those who knew her, myself included

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari



The book was published by Harper Collins in 2014 and translated from the Hebrew by the author, with the help of Haim Watsman and John Purcell.

First, kudos to the author for using the term ‘humankind’ rather than ‘mankind’ as used by Neil Armstrong when he stepped on the moon. Harari often uses ‘her’ and ‘she’ when referring to humans in general, and for that refusal to accede to stereotypical sexist usage he is to be congratulated.

Harari provides the reader with a stunning, all-encompassing birds-eye-view of the history of the world, displaying a breath-taking breadth of knowledge in any number of scientific and other areas while at the same time formulating his discourse in a language that is both accessible and peppered with humour – no easy task in a tome of this nature. In so doing he provides us with an overall perspective of human development and humankind’s place in the world in the past and the present.

Especially endearing are his throw-away asides and use of familiar and even irreverent language without ever descending to a level that is insulting to the reader’s intelligence, as well as inserting references to modern life when describing historical events. Thus, for example, in explaining the rationale for Captain Cook’s 18th century expedition to the Antipodes he considers whether it was intended for military or scientific purposes, then says “That’s like asking whether your petrol tank is half empty of half full. It was both.” This little departure from the dry academic tone gives the reader the  feeling that she is simply having a conversation with a knowledgeable friend or relative.

And the book abounds in similar examples, so that the bitter pill of abstract or abstruse factual knowledge is sweetened by a generous dose of humour and even irreverence.

In Part 3, The Unification of Humankind, Harari devotes a chapter to ‘The Scent of Money.’ Since it is impossible to review the book as a whole, I have chosen to focus on his treatment of economics as a seminal aspect of human development. Coins were minted and used as currency in ancient societies several millennia ago (Sumer, Rome, Judea, Greece, etc.) and money represented a crucial aspect of the transition from the barter system of the hunter-gatherer to the settled farming societies of the agricultural revolution. Nonetheless,  it did not constitute an important step in the development of modern society, Harari claims, asserting that it was a purely mental revolution, involving ‘the creation of a new inter-subjective reality that existed solely in people’s shared imagination.

Money does, however, enable people to ascribe a value to objects that previously could not be measured very easily. Harari points out that coins and banknotes are a rare form of money today, as more than 90 percent of all money exists only on computer servers, and most transactions are executed by electronic means. It is banks and financial institutions that enable these flows to take place, and behind Harari’s light-hearted account of the way money works lies a wealth (sorry about the pun) of complex economic theory and data.

In the segment entitled ‘How Does Money work?’ Harari points out that without trust the system would be unworkable. The concept of credit, which is based on trust, is the mechanism by which the economic system operates in the modern world, and it is only in the last five hundred years, the period during which the modern world emerged, that the economic system based on credit and trust, has developed.

Harari notes that trust was created in the course of a long and complex network of political, social and economic relations. When coins were first used they had a standardized weight and value, guaranteed as such by the ruler. This is not quite the case with modern paper money, which constitutes more of an i.o.u. whose value is guaranteed by the central bank.  Without trust in the power of the central financial authority the system wouldn’t work.  This concept enabled the Roman Empire to rule many different and distant lands, and in modern times allows different countries to trade with one another, and large political entities to function financially.

Money is based on two universal principles: universal convertibility and universal trust.  While this system has benefits it also serves to undermine local traditions, intimate relations and human values, replacing them with the laws of supply and demand. The trust system relates not to individuals but to money itself. Notwithstanding,  determined armed groups or nations can overthrow the rule of money and impose a different system of values (e.g., Marxism, Islam). The desire to rule others gave rise to imperial domination both in ancient Rome and in sixteenth century Europe.  But it is commerce, empire and universal religions that have led to the ‘global village’ we live in today (Chapter 13, ‘The Secret of Success’). The modern world of the last five hundred years is the product of intellectual curiosity (as exemplified by the Scientific Revolution), geographical exploration (Imperial Expansion) and their attendants – greed, or more nicely put, the profit motive.

In Chapter 16, ‘The Capitalist Creed,’ Harari uses a simple analogy to illustrate the role played by credit (and therefore trust) in the economic system, with the end-product being the financial credit that oils the wheels of the economy and enables economic progress. The idea of progress, of scientific discovery, has enabled our world to move forward at an astonishing pace in the last 500 years. This has brought people to place increasing trust in the future rather than looking back to and longing for an idealized past. Despite bumps in the road and setbacks along the way, there is ever-growing credit and economic growth, bringing greater prosperity to more and more people all over the world.

Capitalism involves the investment of money, goods and resources in production. Harari considers this relatively recent concept to be a new religion, one that is supported by governments and financial institutions. Keeping the economy growing has become the sine qua non of ruling bodies, and even led to wars in the nineteenth century in order to sustain the preservation of imperial (and hence economic) interests). Politics and economics are today inextricably interconnected, and a country’s credit rating is at least as important for its economic wellbeing as its natural resources.

However, belief in the free market can lead to the cynical exploitation of human beings, as it does of animals today. Harari gives all-too-graphic accounts of the way animals are treated as part of the process of food production. Human slavery, which was widespread in the past, was eventually overcome on ethical, not economic, grounds.

In Chapter 17, ‘The Wheels of Industry,’  Harari tackles the problem of the creation and conversion of energy. This was originally provided by muscle power, whether of humans or animals, until in the nineteenth century steam power, and later electricity, were discovered and harnessed, facilitating the Industrial Revolution that has made our modern world. Other forms of energy have emerged – oil, nuclear power and solar power – and there may well be others as yet unknown and untapped. As Harari points out, people invented and imagined many things, but no one foresaw the internet and the way it would revolutionise our lives.

All this progress has brought us to a point where a great many things are being produced and the main function of many industries is to produce more and more. In order to create a market for their goods an entire industry of advertising and marketing has arisen, with its ideology of consumerism, or what Harari calls ‘The Age of Shopping.’ We are all victims or subjects of this ideology and resist its wiles at our peril. Harari defines this as another religion, and the first one whose followers actually do what they are asked to do. “How do we know that we’ll really get paradise in return?” he asks, and answers: “We’ve seen it on television.”

According to Harari, the modern world is one of unparalleled peace and prosperity, especially in the last seven decades,  but over the last two centuries it has led to the collapse of family and community. Today there is far greater emphasis on the individual, and what has emerged alongside this approach are imagined communities (Facebook, for example). But that is more a sociological and psychological  issue than an economic one, and it is to this that Harari devotes the last portion of his book.



London Revisited


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As we all know, London has a lot to offer in the way of culture, amusement, entertainment and delights of all kinds. However, there is a very big but to enjoying London, and my latest visit has brought this into relief. So, I have made a series of notes to myself regarding points to avoid when in that fair city. I only hope that I remember to take note of my notes on my next visit.

Note to self no.1: Try to avoid visiting London over the August Bank Holiday weekend. It almost invariably rains (which means disaster for my hair). The city is even more crowded than usual. Hotels and shops are full to bursting, as is the Underground, while the buses are few and far between. A stroll along Oxford Street requires elbowing one’s way through crowds of shoppers of all shapes, sizes and nationalities (as well as an inordinate number of ladies in long black cloak-like coats that cover every part of their anatonomy, leaving only a slit for their eyes).

Note to self no.2: Don’t go to a pub to enjoy the traditional meal of fish and chips on a night when a football game is being played anywhere in England. These games are shown on enormous TV screens placed at strategic points throughout the pub, and the eyes of all the occupants of the arena are fixed on them. To the frantic babble of the commentator is added the roaring of the crowd in the stadium, and this is further supplemented by the shouts of the people in the pub. This makes for a noise level far above my comfort zone and quite ruins my appetite – even that for fish and chips.

Note to self no.3: Avoid the customary temples of delights, such as the British Museum, the National Gallery, and all the other tourist havens, as they are too crowded to be enjoyable. Hopefully, the current labour unrest at the National Gallery will soon be resolved as the innocent visitor from abroad finds him- or her-self barred from entering many of the best galleries, and the usually informative guided tours given daily at 11.30 a.m. and 2.30 p.m. are not available at present.

Note to self no.4: Be very careful when ordering food of any kind anywhere. The influx of ambitious young foreign workers, many of whom are to be found behind stalls and tills in cafes, restaurants and shops, are not always at one with the quaint English expressions with which some of us grew up many years ago. Thus, when I asked for ‘a cup of tea’ I was presented with a….cappucino. The two beverages sound almost the same, don’t they? I was almost tempted to ask for ‘a cuppa,’ but I’m glad I didn’t, because the good Lord only knows what I would have ended up with.

Note to self no.5: Pack your carry-on luggage with great care. I was among the several passengers whose carry-on luggage and handbag were thoroughly searched by the security personnel at Heathrow airport. It is no great pleasure to have your intimate possessions extracted from their place of rest, held up to the light and examined for any trace of suspicious matter. And of course, there is general interest in the medley of objects that are brought to light. The security officials’ suspicions were aroused, I think, by the very small bottle of liquid soap I always carry with me. But then came the other delights – my medications, my creams, a tiny bottle of perfume, all of which were examined, dissected and deposited in one zip-lock bag, thereby ruining any order I had put them in. “Ooh, pink macaroons!” exclaimed the young lady with delight as she extracted the cellophane bag from my hand luggage, where I had put ot to try and protect the contents from being crushed. They weren’t macaroons, actually, but raspberry-flavoured meringues that friends had given us, and very delicious they were, too when I finally got to eat them.

Note to self no.6: Don’t get carried away by the terms of endearment that English people tend to use to just anyone and everyone. The bus-driver said ‘this is your stop, love,’ and a handsome young security officer asked me “Are you travelling on your own, darling?” For a brief moment I imagined he was offering me a chance at a brief fling but then realised it was just his concern at seeing my possessions strewn all over the table and the struggle of a no-longer-young lady to get them all back into her suitcase. Ah well, one’s entitled to dream, isn’t one?






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