The Story of Weight Watchers, Mossad’s Operation Moses, and the Forgotten Women of the Gulag
Good morning. Let’s start things off with the story of the Queens housewife “who founded Weight Watchers in her living room in 1963.”
Richard Pevear on Chekhov’s stories: “When Chekhov began to write humorous stories and sketches, he thought he was doing it simply for money. And so he was. His father’s grocery business, in their native Taganrog, on the Sea of Azov, had gone bankrupt in 1876, and to avoid debtor’s prison the family had fled to Moscow, where Chekhov’s two older brothers were already studying at the university. Chekhov, who was sixteen at the time, stayed behind to finish high school, supporting himself in various ways, one of them being the publication of humorous sketches in local papers, signed with various pseudonyms. In 1879 he graduated and moved to Moscow himself, where he entered medical school, and where his writing, still pseudonymous, became virtually the sole support of the family—mother, father, four brothers, and a sister. Chekhov paid no attention to the artistic quality of his sketches; he simply tossed them off, sometimes several a day, and sent them to various daily or weekly humor sheets, whose editors gladly printed them. But his true artistic gift—innate, intuitive—showed itself even in the most exaggerated, absurd, and playful of these early jottings.”
Stephen Daisley reviews a new book on Mossad’s Operation Moses: “Menachem Begin was Israel’s most reviled and misunderstood prime minister. Reviled by Britain for his paramilitary activities against the British Army in Palestine, Begin was also a keen admirer of the Westminster parliamentary system and English common law. Reviled by Jimmy Carter as a hawk who refused to cede an inch of territory, this ultranationalist signed the peace treaty with Egypt that returned Sinai. Reviled by the left as a racist and fascist, Israel’s first right-wing prime minister summoned the head of the Mossad soon after his victory and instructed him: ‘Bring me the Jews of Ethiopia.’ This unexpected order from a mercurial leader led to Operation Moses, the covert immigration to Israel of thousands of Ethiopian Jews, whom the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate had only latterly recognized as halachically Jewish. How they ended up in Ethiopia is the subject of legends but no firm historical answer. While their adopted homeland referred to them as falasha (‘landless’), they knew themselves as Beta Israel — ‘the house of Israel’. They had a land, Jerusalem, and would return one day. As an Ethiopian Jewish children’s song ran: ‘Stork! Stork! How is our country Jerusalem doing?’ The gap between that longing and its realization in 1984 and 1985 is the subject of Raffi Berg’s Red Sea Spies.”
The forgotten women of the Gulag: “A new book by Monika Zgustova brings the harrowing, heartbreaking history of the Soviet Gulag’s female prisoners to life.”
Peter Hitchens reviews Wolfram Siemann’s life of Metternich: “He is associated—rightly—with those unlovely features of Europe’s old regime, secret police and censorship. And there are those who say that his supposed brilliance at diplomacy was not in fact all it has been made out to be. His personal character does not seem to have been especially admirable. Yet in recent years the name has also taken on a certain unexpected magic, polished by modern figures such as Henry Kissinger into a symbol of non-utopian, realistic diplomacy in which a practical-minded search for order among nations is better than an idealistic pursuit of justice within nations.”
Essay of the Day:
In LitHub, Paul Auster writes about a trip he took in 2017 to Stanislav—the birthplace of his grandfather:
“Circumstances led me to Ukraine in September 2017. My business was in Lviv, but I took advantage of an off-day to travel two hours to the south and spend the afternoon in Ivano-Frankivsk, where my paternal grandfather had been born sometime in the early 1880s. There was no reason to go there except curiosity, or else what I would call the lure of a counterfeit nostalgia, for the fact was that I had never known my grandfather and still know next to nothing about him. He died 28 years before I was born, a shadow-man from the unwritten, unremembered past, and even as I traveled to the city he had left in the late 19th or early 20th century, I understood that the place where he had spent his boyhood and adolescence was no longer the place where I would be spending the afternoon.
“Still, I wanted to go there, and as I look back and ponder the reasons why I wanted to go, perhaps it comes down to a single verifiable fact: The journey would be taking me through the bloodlands of Eastern Europe, the central horror-zone of 20th-century slaughter, and if the shadow-man responsible for giving me my name had not left that part of the world when he did, I never would have been born.
“What I already knew in advance of my arrival was that before it became Ivano-Frankivsk in 1962 (in honor of Ukrainian poet Ivan Franko), the 400-year-old city had been known variously as Stanislawów, Stanislau, Stanislaviv, and Stanislav, depending on whether it had been under Polish, German, Ukrainian, or Soviet rule. A Polish city had become a Hapsburg city, a Hapsburg city had become an Austro-Hungarian city, an Austro-Hungarian city had become a Russian city in the first two years of World War I, then an Austro-Hungarian city, then a Ukrainian city for a short time after the war, then a Polish city, then a Soviet city (from September 1939 to July 1941), then a German-controlled city (until July 1944), then a Soviet city, and now, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a Ukrainian city.
“At the time of my grandfather’s birth, the population was 18,000, and in 1900 (the approximate year of his departure) there were 26,000 people living there, more than half of them Jews. By the time of my visit, the population had grown to 230,000, but back during the years of the Nazi occupation the number had been somewhere between 80,000 and 95,000, half Jewish, half non-Jewish, and what I had already known for several decades by then is that after the German invasion in the summer of 1941, 10,000 Jews had been rounded up and shot in the Jewish cemetery that fall and by December the remaining Jews had been herded into a ghetto, from which 10,000 more Jews had been shipped off to the Belźec death camp in Poland, and then, one by one and five by five and twenty by twenty throughout 1942 and early 1943, the Germans had marched the surviving Jews of Stanislau into the woods surrounding the city and had shot them and shot them and shot them until there were no Jews left—tens of thousands of people murdered by a bullet to the back of the head and then buried in the common pits that had been dug by the murdered ones before they were killed.”
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