Review of Flight to Freedom, by Ellen Oppenheimer
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
When I first met Ellen Oppenheimer she was in her eighties, a spry woman with a contagious smile and a mischievous teenager’s twinkle in her eyes standing beside her now-late husband Marty on a housecall visit that I made on behalf of the computer services company that I own and operate. But many, many years before that, when she was a very young child, she and her family fled the Nazis, literally one step ahead of a brutal killing machine that claimed too many of her relations, marked for death only because of certain strands of DNA that overlap with centuries of irrational hatred directed at Europeans of Jewish descent.
On subsequent visits, we got to know each other better, and she shared with me bits and pieces of the story of how her family cheated death and made it to America. In turn, I told her of my love of history—and the fact that while I was not raised as a Jew, we had in common some of those same Ashkenazi strands of DNA through my great-grandfather, who fled Russia on the heels of a pogrom. I also mentioned my book blog, and she asked that I bookmark the page on the browser of the custom computer they had purchased from me.
It was on a later housecall, as Marty’s health declined, that I detected shadows intruding on Ellen’s characteristic optimism, and the deep concern for him looming behind the stoic face she wore. But all at once her eyes brightened when she announced with visible pride that she had published a book called Flight to Freedom about her childhood escape from the Nazis. She urged me to buy it and to read it, and she genuinely wanted my opinion of her work.
I did not do so.
But she persisted. On later visits, the urging evolved to something of an admonishment. When I would arrive, she always greeted me with a big hug, as if she was more a grandmother than a client, but she was clearly disappointed that I—a book reviewer no less—had not yet read her book. For my part, my resistance was deliberate. I had too many memories of good friends who pestered me to see their bands playing at a local pub, only to discover that they were terrible. I liked Ellen: what if her book was awful? I did not want to take the chance.
Then, during the pandemic, I saw Marty’s obituary. Covid had taken him. Ellen and Marty had moved out of state, but I still had Ellen’s email, so I reached out with condolences. We both had much to say to each other, but in the end, she asked once more: “Have you read my book yet?” So I broke down and ordered it on Amazon, then took it with me on a week-long birthday getaway to an Airbnb.
Flight to Freedom is a thin volume with a simple all-white cover stamped with only title and author. I brought it with me to a comfortable chair in a great room lined with windows that gave breathtaking views to waves lapping the shore in East Lyme, CT. I popped the cap on a cold IPA and cracked the cover of Ellen’s book. Once I began, all my earlier reluctance slipped away: I simply could not stop reading it.
In an extremely well-written account—especially for someone with virtually no literary background—the author transports the reader back to a time when an educated, affluent middle-class German family overnight was set upon a road of potential extermination in the wake of the Nazi rise to power. Few, of course, believed that a barbarity of such enormity could ever come to pass in 1933, when three-year-old Ellen’s father Adolf was seized on a pretext and jailed. But Grete, Ellen’s mother—the true hero of Flight to Freedom—was far more prescient. In a compelling narrative with a pace that never slows down, we follow the brilliant and intrepid Grete as she more than once engineers Adolf’s release from captivity and serves as the indefatigable engine of her family’s escape from the Nazis, first to Paris, and then later, as war erupted, to Marseille and Oran and finally Casablanca—the iconic route of refugees etched on a map that is splashed across the screen in the classic film featuring Bogart and Bergman.
The last leg then was a Portuguese boat that finally delivered them to safety on Staten Island in 1942. In the passages of Flight to Freedom that describe that voyage, the author cannot disguise her disgust at the contempt displayed shipboard for the less fortunate by those who have purchased more expensive berth, when all were Jews who would of course have found a kind of hideous equality in Germany’s death camps. This was, tragically, the fate of much of Ellen’s extended family who did not heed Grete’s warnings of what might befall them, by those who simply could not believe that such horrors could lurk in their future. Throughout the tale, there is a kind of nuance and complexity one might expect to find in a book by a trained academic or a gifted novelist that instead is delightfully on display by a novice author. Her voice and her pen are both strong from start to finish in this powerful and stirring work.
As a reviewer, can I find some flaws? Of course I can. In the narrative, Ellen treats her childhood character simply as a bystander; the story is instead told primarily through Grete’s eyes. As such, the omniscient point of view often serves as vehicle to the chronicle, with observations and emotions the author could not really know for certain. And sometimes, the point of view shifts awkwardly. But these are quibbles. This is a fine book on so many levels, and the author deserves much praise for telling this story and telling it so well!
A few days after I read Flight to Freedom, I dug into my client database to come up with Ellen’s phone number and rang her up. She was, as I anticipated, thrilled that I had finally read the book, and naturally welcomed my positive feedback. After we chatted for a while, I confessed that my only complaint, if it could be called a complaint, was that the child character of Ellen stood mute much of time in the narrative, and I wondered why she did not relate more of her feelings as a key actor in the drama. With a firm voice she told me (and I am paraphrasing here): “Because it is my mother’s story. It was she who saved our lives. She was the hero for our family.”
I think Grete would be proud of her little girl for telling the story this way, so many decades later. And I’m proud to know Ellen, who shared it so beautifully. Buy this book. Read it. It is a story you need to experience, as well.
I must admit that I knew nothing of the apparently widespread practice of “couchsurfing” before I read Stephan Orth’s quirky, sometime comic, and utterly entertaining travelogue, Behind Putin’s Curtain: Friendships and Misadventures Inside Russia. For the uninitiated, couchsurfing is a global community said to be comprised of more than 14 million members in over 200,000 cities that includes virtually every country on the map. The purpose is to provide free if bare bones lodging for travelers in exchange for forming new friendships and spawning new adventures. The term couchsurfing is an apt one, since frequently the visitor in fact beds down on a couch, although accommodations range from actual beds with sheets and pillowcases to blankets strewn on a kitchen floor—or, as Orth discovers to his amusement, a cot in a bathroom, just across from the toilet! Obviously, if your idea of a good time is a $2000/week Airbnb with a memory foam mattress and a breathtaking view, this is not for you, but if you are scraping together your loose change and want to see the world from the bottom up, couchsurfing offers an unusual alternative that will instantly plug you into the local culture by pairing you up with an authentic member of the community. Of course, authentic does not necessarily translate into typical. More on that later.
Orth, an acclaimed journalist from Germany, is no novice to couchsurfing, but rather a practiced aficionado, who has not only long relied upon it as a travel mechanism but has upped the ante by doing so in distant and out of the ordinary spots like Iran, Saudi Arabia and China, the subjects of his several best-selling books. This time he gives it a go in Russia: from Grozny in the North Caucasus, on to Volgograd and Saint Petersburg, then to Novosibirsk and the Altai Republic in Siberia, and finally Yakutsk and Vladivostok in the Far East. (Full disclosure: I never knew Yakutsk existed other than as a strategic corner of the board in the game of Risk.) All the while Orth proves a keen, non-judgmental observer of peoples and customs who navigates the mundane, the hazardous, and the zany with an enthusiasm instantly contagious to the reader. He’s a fine writer, with a style underscored by impeccable timing, comedic and otherwise, and passages often punctuated with wit and sometime wicked irony. You can imagine him penning the narrative impatiently, eager to work through one paragraph to the next so he can detail another encounter, express another anecdote, or simply mock his circumstances once more, all while wearing a twinkle in his eye and a wry twist to his lips.
Couchsurfing may be routine for the author, but he wisely assumes this is not the case for his audience, so he introduces this fascinating milieu by detailing the process of booking a room. The very first one he describes turns out to be a hilarious online race down various rabbit holes over a sequence of seventy-nine web pages where his utterly eccentric eventual host peppers him with bizarre, even existential observations, and challenges potential guests to fill in various blanks while warning them “that he follows the principle of ‘rational egoism’” and “doesn’t have ten dwarves cleaning up after guests.” [p7] Orth, unintimidated, responds with a wiseass retort and wins the invitation.
Perhaps the most delightful portions of this book are Orth’s profiles of his various hosts, who tend to run the full spectrum of the odd to the peculiar. I say this absent any negative connotation that might otherwise be implied. After all, Einstein and Lincoln were both peculiar fellows. I only mean that the reader, eager to get a taste of local culture, should not mistake Orth’s bunkmates for typical representatives of their respective communities. This makes sense, of course, since regardless of nationality the average person is unlikely to welcome complete strangers into their homes as overnight guests for free. That said, most of his hosts come off as fascinating if unconventional folks you might love to hang out with, at least for a time. And they put as much trust in the author as he puts in them. One couple even briefly leaves Orth to babysit their toddler. Another host turns over the keys of his private dacha and leaves him unattended with his dog.
Of course, the self-deprecating Orth, who seems equally gifted as patient listener and engaging raconteur, could very well be the ideal guest in these circumstances. At the same time, he could also very well be a magnet for the outrageous and the bizarre, as witnessed by the madcap week-long car trip through Siberia he ends up taking with this wild and crazy chick named Nadya that begins when they meet and bond over lamb soup and a spirited debate as to what was the best Queen album, survives a rental car catastrophe on a remote roadway, and winds up with them horseback riding on the steppe. Throughout, with only a single exception, the two disagree about … well … absolutely everything, but still manage to have a good time. If you don’t literally laugh out loud while reading through this long episode, you should be banned for life from using the LOL emoji.
You would think that travel via couchsurfing could very well be dangerous—perhaps less for Orth, who is well over six feet tall and a veteran couchsurfer—but certainly for young, attractive women bedding down in unknown environs. But it turns out that such incidents while not unknown are very, very rare. The couchsurfing community is self-policing: guests and hosts rely on ratings and reviews not unlike those on Airbnb, which tends to minimize if not entirely eliminate creeps and psychos. Still, while 14 million people cannot be wrong, it’s not for everyone. Which leads me to note that the only fault I can find with this outstanding work is its title, Behind Putin’s Curtain, since it has little to do with Putin or the lives led by ordinary Russians: certainly the peeps that Orth runs with are anything but ordinary or typical! I have seen this book published elsewhere simply as Couchsurfing in Russia, which I think suits it far better. Other than that quibble, this is one of the best travel books that I have ever read, and I highly recommend it. And while I might be a little too far along in years to start experimenting with couchsurfing, I admire Orth’s spirit and I’m eager to read more of his adventures going forward.
[Note: the edition of this book that I read was an ARC (Advance Reader’s Copy), as part of an early reviewer’s program.]
Review of Tim & Tigon, by Tim Cope
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
About five years ago, I read what I still consider to be the finest travel and adventure book I have ever come across, On the Trail of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads, by Tim Cope, a remarkable tale of an intrepid young Australian who in 2004 set out on a three-year mostly solo trek on horseback across the Eurasian steppe from Mongolia to Hungary—some 10,000 kilometers (about 6,200 miles)—roughly retracing routes followed by Genghis Khan and his steppe warriors. An extraordinary individual, Cope refused to carry a firearm, despite warnings against potential predators of the animal or human kind to menace an untested foreigner alone on the vast and often perilous steppe corridor, instead relying on his instincts, personality, and determination to succeed, regardless of the odds. Oh, and those odds seem further stacked against him because despite his outsize ambition, he is quite an inexperienced horseman—in fact his only previous attempt on horseback as a child left him with a broken arm! Nevertheless, his only companions for the bulk of the journey ahead would be three horses—and a dog named Tigon foisted upon him against his will that would become his best friend.
My 2016 review of On the Trail of Genghis Khan—which Cope featured on his website for a time—sparked an email correspondence between us, and shortly after publication he sent me an inscribed copy of his latest work, Tim & Tigon, stamped with Tigon’s footprints. I’m always a little nervous in these circumstances: what if the new book falls short? As it turned out, such concerns were misplaced; I enjoyed it so much I bought another copy to give as a gift!
In Kazakhstan, early in his journey, a herder named Aset connived to shift custody of a scrawny six-month-old puppy to Cope, insisting it would serve both as badly needed company during long periods of isolation as well as an ally to warn against wolves. The dog, a short-haired breed of hound known as a tazi, was named Tigon, which translates into something like “fast wind.” Tim was less than receptive, but Aset was persuasive: “In our country dogs choose their owners. Tigon is yours.” [p89] That initial grudging acceptance was to develop into a critical bond that was strengthened again and again during the many challenges that lay ahead. In fact, Tim’s connection with Tigon came to represent the author’s single most significant relationship in the course of this epic trek. Hence the title of this book.
Tim & Tigon defies simple categorization. On one level, it is a compact re-telling of On the Trail of Genghis Khan, but it’s not simply an abridged version of the earlier book. Styled as a Young Adult (YA) work, it has appeal to a much broader audience. And while it might be tempting to brand it as some kind of heartwarming boy and his dog tale, it is marked by a much greater complexity. Finally, as with the first book, it is bound to frustrate any librarian looking to shelve it properly: Is it memoir? Is it travel? Is it adventure? Is it survival? Is it a book about animals? It turns out to be about all of these and more.
As the title suggests, the emphasis this time finds focus upon the unique connection that develops between a once reluctant Tim and the dog that becomes nothing less than his full partner in the struggle to survive over thousands of miles of terrain marked by an often-hostile environment that frequently saw extreme temperatures of heat and cold, conditions both difficult and dangerous, as well as numerous obstacles. But despite the top billing neither Tim nor Tigon are the main characters here. Instead, as the narrative comes to reveal again and again, the true stars of this magnificent odyssey are the land and its peoples, a sometimes-forbidding landscape that hosts remarkably resilient, enterprising, and surprisingly optimistic folks—clans, families and individuals that are ever undaunted by highly challenging lifeways that have their roots in centuries-old customs.
Stalin effectively strangled their traditional nomadic ways in the former Soviet Union by enforcing borders that were unknown to their ancestors, but he never crushed their collective spirit. And long after the U.S.S.R went out of business, these nomads still thrive, their orbits perhaps more circumscribed, their horses and camels supplemented—if not supplanted—by jeeps and motorbikes. They still make their homes in portable tents known as yurts, although these days many sport TV sets served by satellite and powered by generators. The overwhelming majority welcome the author into their humble camps, often with unexpected enthusiasm and outsize hospitality, generously offering him food and shelter and tending to his animals, even as many are themselves scraping by in conditions that can best be described as hardscrabble. The shared empathy between Cope and his hosts is marvelously palpable throughout the narrative, and it is this authenticity that distinguishes his work. It is clear that Tim is a great listener, and despite how alien he must have appeared upon arrival in these remote camps, he quickly establishes rapport with men, women, children, clan elders—the old and the young—and remarkably repeats this feat in Mongolia, in Kazakhstan, in Russia, and beyond. This turns out to be his finest achievement: his talents with a pen are evident, to be sure, but the story he relates would hardly be as impressive if not for that element.
When Tim’s amazing journey across the steppe ended in Hungary in 2007, joy mingled with a certain melancholy at the realization that he would have to leave Tigon behind when he returned home. But the obstacles of a an out-of-reach price tag and a mandatory quarantine were eventually overcome, and a little more than a year later, Tigon joined Tim in Australia. Tigon went on to sire many puppies and lived to a ripe old age before, tragically, the dog that once braved perils large and small on the harsh landscapes of the Eurasian steppe fell before the wheels of a speeding car on the Australian macadam. Tim was devastated by his loss, so this book is also, of course, a tribute to Tigon. My signed copy is inscribed with the Kazakh saying that served as a kind of ongoing guidepost to their trek together: “Trust in fate … but always tie up the camel.” That made me smile, but that smile was tinged with sadness as I gazed upon Tigon’s footprint stamped just below it. Tigon is gone, but he left an indelible mark not only on Tim, who perhaps still grieves for him, but also upon every reader, young and old, who is touched by his story.
[I reviewed Tim Cope’s earlier book here: Review of: On the Trail of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads, by Tim Cope]
Some would argue that the precise moment that marked the beginning of the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union was February 20, 1988, when the regional soviet governing the Nagorno-Karabakh Oblast—an autonomous region of mostly ethnic Armenians within the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan—voted to redraw the maps and attach Nagorno-Karabakh to the Soviet Republic of Armenia. Thus began a long, bloody, and yet unresolved conflict in the Caucasus that has ravaged once proud cities and claimed many thousands of lives of combatants and civilians alike. The U.S.S.R. went out of business on December 25, 1991, about midway through what has been dubbed the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, which ended on May 12, 1994, an Armenian victory that established de facto—if internationally unrecognized—independence for the Republic of Artsakh (also known as the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic), but left much unsettled. Smoldering grievances that remained would come to spark future hostilities.
That day came last fall, when the long uneasy stalemate ended suddenly with an Azerbaijani offensive in the short-lived 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War that had ruinous consequences for the Armenian side. Few Americans have ever heard of Nagorno-Karabakh, but I was far better informed because when the war broke out I happened to be reading The Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas De Waal, a well-written, insightful, and—as it turns out—powerfully relevant book that in its careful analysis of this particular region raises troubling questions about human behavior in similar socio-political environments elsewhere.
What is the Caucasus? A region best described as a corridor between the Black Sea on one side and the Caspian Sea on the other, with boundaries at the south on Turkey and Iran, and at the north by Russia and the Greater Caucasus mountain range that has long been seen as the natural border between Eastern Europe and Western Asia. Above those mountains in southern Russia is what is commonly referred to as the North Caucasus, which includes Dagestan and Chechnya. Beneath them lies Transcaucasia, comprised of the three tiny nations of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, whose modern history began with the collapse of the Soviet Union and are the focus of De Waal’s fascinating study. The history of the Caucasus is the story of peoples dominated by the great powers beyond their borders, and despite independence this remains true to this day: Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 to support separatist enclaves in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in the first European war of the twenty-first century; Turkey provided military support to Azerbaijan in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War.
At this point, some readers of this review will pause, intimidated by exotic place names in an unfamiliar geography. Fortunately, De Waal makes that part easy with a series of outstanding maps that puts the past and the present into appropriate context. At the same time, the author eases our journey through an often-uncertain terrain by applying a talented pen to a dense, but highly readable narrative that assumes no prior knowledge of the Caucasus. At first glance, this work has the look and feel of a textbook of sorts, but because De Waal has such a fine-tuned sense of the lands and the peoples he chronicles, there are times when the reader feels as if a skilled travel writer was escorting them through history and then delivering them to the brink of tomorrow. Throughout, breakout boxes lend a captivating sense of intimacy to places and events that after all host human beings who like their counterparts in other troubled regions live, laugh, and sometimes tragically perish because of their proximity to armed conflict that typically has little to do with them personally.
De Waal proves himself a strong researcher, as well as an excellent observer highly gifted with an analytical acumen that not only carefully scrutinizes the complexity of a region bordered by potentially menacing great powers, and pregnant with territorial disputes, historic enmities, and religious division, but identifies the tolerance and common ground in shared cultures enjoyed by its ordinary inhabitants if left to their own devices. More than once, the author bemoans the division driven by elites on all sides of competing causes that have swept up the common folk who have lived peacefully side-by-side for generations, igniting passions that led to brutality and even massacre. This is a tragic tale we have seen replayed elsewhere, with escalation to genocide among former neighbors in what was once Yugoslavia, for instance, and also in Rwanda. For all the bloodletting, it has not risen to that level in the Caucasus, but unfortunately spots like Nagorno-Karabakh have all the ingredients for some future catastrophe if wiser heads do not prevail.
I picked up this book quite randomly last summer en route from a Vermont Airbnb in my first visit to a brick-and-mortar bookstore since the start of the pandemic. A rare positive from quarantine has been a good deal of time to read and reflect. I am grateful that The Caucasus: An Introduction was in the fat stack of books that I consumed in that period. Place names and details are certain to fade, but I will long remember the greater themes De Waal explored here. If you are curious about the world, I would definitely recommend this book to you.
[Note: Thomas de Waal is a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, specializing in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region.]
Myth has it that before he became king of Athens, Theseus went to Crete and slew the Minotaur, a creature half-man and half-bull that roamed the labyrinth in Knossos. According to Homer’s Iliad, Idomeneus, King of Crete, was one of the top-ranked generals of the Greek alliance in the Trojan War. But long before the legends and the literature, Crete hosted Europe’s most advanced early Bronze Age civilization—dubbed the Minoan—which was then overrun and absorbed by the Mycenean Greeks that are later said to have made war at Troy. Minoan Civilization flourished circa 3000 BCE-1450 BCE, when the Myceneans moved in. What remains of the Minoans are magnificent ruins of palace complexes, brilliantly rendered frescoes depicting dolphins, bull-leaping lads, and bare-breasted maidens, and a still yet undeciphered script known as Linear A. The deepest roots of Western Civilization run to the ancient Hellenes, so much so that some historians proclaim the Greeks the grandfathers of the modern West. If that is true, then the Minoans of Crete were the grandfathers of the Greeks.
Unfortunately, if you want to learn more about the Minoans, do not turn to A History of Crete, by former educator Chris Moorey, an ambitious if too often dull work that affords this landmark civilization a mere 22 pages. Of course, the author has every right to emphasize what he deems most relevant, but the reader also has a right to feel misled—especially as the jacket cover sports a bull-leaping scene from a Minoan fresco! And it isn’t only the Minoans that are bypassed; Moorey’s treatment of Crete’s glorious ancient past is at best superficial. After a promising start that touches on recent discoveries of Paleolithic hand-axes, he fast-forwards at a dizzying rate: Minoan Civilization ends on page 39; more than a thousand years of Greek dominance concludes on page 66, and Roman rule is over by page 84. Thus begins the long saga of Crete as a relative backwater, under the sway of distant colonial masters.
I am not certain what the author’s strategy was, but it appears that his goal was to divide Crete’s long history into equal segments, an awkward tactic akin to a biographer of Lincoln lending equal time to his rail-splitting and his presidency. At any rate, much of the story is simply not all that interesting the way Moorey tells it. In fact, too much of it reads like an expanded Wikipedia entry, while sub-headings too frequently serve as unwelcome interrupts to a narrative that generally tends to be stilted and colorless. The result is a chronological report of facts about people and events, conspicuously absent the analysis and interpretation critical to a historical treatment. Moreover, the author’s voice lacks enthusiasm and remains maddeningly neutral, whether the topic is tax collection or captive rebels impaled on hooks. As the chronicle plods across the many centuries, there is also a lack of connective tissue, so the reader never really gets a sense of what distinguishes the people of Crete from people anywhere else. What are their salient characteristics? What is the cultural glue that bonds them together? We never really find out.
To be fair, there is a lot of information here. And Moorey is not a bad writer, just an uninspired one. Could this be because the book is directed at a scholarly rather than a popular audience, and academic writing by its nature can often be stultifying? That’s one possibility. But is it even a scholarly work? The endnotes are slim, and few point to primary sources.
A History of Crete is a broad survey that may serve as a useful reference for those seeking a concise study of the island’s past, but it seems like an opportunity missed. In the final paragraph, the author concludes: “In spite of all difficulties, it is likely the spirt of Crete will survive.” What is this spirit of Crete he speaks of? Whatever it may be, the reader must look elsewhere to find out.