“WARSAW 1944”— Love, Courage and Sacrifice

warsaw 1944

“Warsaw 1944” (“Miasto 44”)

Love, Courage and Sacrifice

Amos Lassen

Polish director Jan Komasa brings us a universal story about love, courage and sacrifice set during the Warsaw Uprising. Stefan (Jozef Pawlowski) and Ladybug (Sophia Wichłacz) meet and fall in love at first sight. Then on August 1st, 1944, they along with friends were placed under the command of Cobra (Tomasz Schuchardt).

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Komasa described the Warsaw Uprising (the ill-fated 63-day struggle led by the Polish resistance Home Army to liberate the city from Nazi occupation) as “a massacre.”

“Everybody thought it would only take three days to beat the Germans,” said Komasa, “Everyone expected the Western countries and the Russians to help. Hitler apparently wanted to destroy Warsaw and kill everybody.”

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The film coincides with the 70th anniversary of the surrender of the Home Army and was culled from six hours of original silent newsreel footage shot by teams from the Home Army’s Bureau of Information and Propaganda. Komasa and his team edited this down to 87 minutes and restored, colorized and augmented it with new sound effects and dialogue.

The process was not easy as you can imagine. Military, clothing and architecture consultants, Warsaw experts and historians were consulted to make the colorization authentic. Because so much of the silent footage features people talking, the filmmakers hired a deaf lip-reader to translate what the people on screen were saying, as well as voice Then Komasa took this real footage and blended it with a fictional story about two young brothers from the propaganda bureau and a U.S. airman recently escaped from a German POW camp who are filming the conflict. Though they are never seen on camera, they provide the voice-over commentary on the uprising, as well as their own lives. The result is a hybrid documentary-narrative feature that is totally amazing not to mention important.

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Be upset umbrage with the vintage black-and-white being colorized, used in order to make the film more appealing to contemporary audiences and “to break the barrier between us and 70 years ago.”

Komasa and his editor spent a year watching the six hours of footage and selecting shots to create a movie with a cohesive storyline. “Then step by step, you see the city being destroyed, people are losing their smiles and then the city we had was erased.”

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In Los Angeles the director met several Warsaw natives who participated in the uprising, including Zbigniew Petryka, 84, and Andrzej Stefanski, 89. Both have seen “Warsaw Uprising” and have vivid memories of the conflict to compare against the film.

Stefanski was 18 when he fought in the uprising. “We were having training in small groups. If the whole group gathered, Germans would know it. Many people were arrested and killed or put in concentration camps and exterminated.” Food was scarce during the conflict. And on one occasion, Stefanski and a fellow soldier risked their lives one night to dig up vegetables that were planted in front of a German fortification. “We had to crawl and dig with our bare hands. We came back alive from this excursion, but two days later, my partner was going on another excursion, was injured and died the next day. Several people were killed. I was very fortunate.”

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Stefan and Ladybug are brave and believe in the cause, as they journey past the face of horror and cruelty of war, in an apocalyptic setting their burning city. Miasto 44 is not a film about politics. It is a film about love, youth and courage. This is the story of

young Poles entering adulthood in the cruel days of German occupation. Despite the war raging around them, they are full of life, passionate and impatient, living as though each day was their last. Here is a plot synopsis:

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“The main protagonist, Stefan looks after his mother and younger brother after his father, a Polish Army officer, died during the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. Stefan works in the Wedel chocolate factory and finds it increasingly difficult to bear the humiliation he suffers at the hands of the Nazis at every turn. When the opportunity presents itself, he joins the underground Polish Home Army, encouraged by Kama (Anna Próchniak), a childhood friend and next-door neighbor. Kama is secretly in love with Stefan. But it is a subtle and sensitive girl named Biedronka (played by Zofia Wichłacz) who becomes Stefan’s first love. But then the Warsaw Uprising breaks out. The uprising was staged by the underground Polish Home Army in an attempt to drive German forces out of Warsaw before the approaching Red Army entered the city. During the fighting, which lasted for 63 days, about 16,000 Polish soldiers were killed or went missing, 20,000 were wounded and 15,000 were taken prisoner. As a result of air raids and artillery shelling as well as harsh living conditions and massacres staged by German troops, anywhere between 150,000 and 200,000 civilians died”.



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Although it takes place during a war, this is the story of people and not of armies or barricades. The movie is not meant to an argument in the ongoing debate in Poland about whether or not the decision to stage the uprising was the right one. Rather the film conveys emotion.

This is not a perfect film by any means but it is worth seeing. It gives testimony of one of the biggest humanitarian disasters in the history of mankind without resorting to disproportionate martyrdom. Although the last thirty minutes is bloody, the last scene makes up for all previous flaws of the film and shows what the last days of the Warsaw Uprising looked like.

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It is an epic love story set to the background of war and the way the young lovers perceived the occupation surrounding them. There is violence and gore that de-romanticizes the period but that is integral to what we see here.

“Arcade” by Drew Nellins-Smith— A Subculture Unto Itself

arcade

Nellins-Smith, Drew. “Arcade”, Unnamed Press, 2016.

A Subculture Unto Itself

Amos Lassen

Having just broken up with his boyfriend, Sam discovers a whole new world at an XXX peepshow on the outskirts of town. What he did not know at first, is that the arcade is not just a place for married men to have anonymous sex but that it is its own subculture and there are rules, customs and language that belong just there. It is a place for instant gratification and is easy to navigate. For Sam it is a wonderful diversion that takes away the loneliness he feels. There is also a sense of excitement that he feels upon entering and it did not take long before he found himself visiting it over and over again. Even more interesting than the amount of time he spends there is the fact that his visits cause him to think about his past and his religious childhood in a small Texas town. Included in his reverie are the memories of sex back then and the expectations from watching science-fiction movies that did not come to fruition.

As a graduate student, I spent some time working and doing research at an arcade in New Orleans and I can attest to the honesty with which this book was written. It is a candid and quite graphic look at one man who attempts to deal with strong desire while maintaining a very carefully constructed self-image that is at odds with his behavior. Sam appears to be self-destructive and is on a downward spiral. He narrates his story and we learn that he is in his 20’s is gay but closeted and there are two things that he loves in life—his ex-boyfriend, a cop, and the time he spends at the arcade. It is interesting that no matter where they are and their age, arcades all seem to be somewhat seedy places. In the outer lobby, or the store itself, there are racks and racks of porno magazines and DVDs. In the back is the arcade consisting of small booths where customers can drop coins to watch some really old porn. Many of the booths have glory holes and it is within them that sex takes place. Sam shares his visits with us and we see that even when he is not at the arcade he thinks about it.

Everything is on the q.t. and faces are unimportant. Sam is just another patron where men go to be unrecognized and have sex. He is a lonely guy who obsesses about “his” cop who already has a new partner. The activity at the arcade is continuous and I can vouch for it never seeming to stop—daylight and nighttime and insignificant—arcades are always dark.

Drew Nellins-Smith has written a short novel that has plenty to say. It is interesting that the LGBT community has moved forward legally but writers are still looking at obsession and sex and even though there are really not part of mainstream thought and action, our literature tends to dwell on it. We still get stories of loneliness, sadness and we still have to deal with fear and terrorism—that which we saw just this week in Orlando. And yes, there are different ways of writing about these issues. Some will be offended by what they read here but here is Drew Nellins-Smith writing the truth in all of its brutality and I am not exactly sure why some would recoil from this. Life is not always pretty as we well know. I believe that it is that honesty (along with originality) that makes this such a good and, yes, important read. He shows us that there are others dealing with the same issues and problem that we deal with. Nellins-Smith has a wicked sense of humor and I believe that he worked very hard to make sure this book came out in the way he wanted to tell this story. He has been able to capture human sexuality in all of its forms and is not afraid to share both its beauty and its ugly aspects.

Sam is a man coming to terms with his sexuality in a very unlikely place that actually is quite a likely place for those who have no other option and Nellins-Smith writes of it, a peepshow arcade, as if it is “place”. I did not want this novel to end—probably because I recognized so much of myself in it. We go into those booths at he back and we see and hear what goes on there. Do we need to know this?—of course not. Do we want to know this?— Read the book and find out. I am very impressed with it.

“Terrence McNally and Fifty Years of American Gay Drama” by John M. Clum— The Relationship of Drama to Life

terrence mcnally

Clum, John M. “Terrence McNally and Fifty Years of American Gay Drama”, Cambia Press, 2016.

The Relationship of Drama to Life

Amos Lassen

 “Terrence McNally and Fifty Years of American Gay Drama” is the first book-length study on the relationship of the plays by Terrence McNally, one of America’s celebrated major dramatists and award-winning playwright about gay life in New York City, to the history of gay theatre during McNally’s career. John Clum examines McNally’s work from the political movements of the 1960s and the history of gay men in New York during the early years of gay liberation, the age of AIDS, and the new reality of gay marriage and families.

It is interesting to note that no one has, until now, written extensively on this subject and just as McNally’s plays are a pleasure to watch so is this book a pleasure to read.

“This is a thorough study of Terrence McNally. The context of gay theatre, gay New York, and gay history is masterfully incorporated, making this book valuable at multiple levels-literary to biographical to historical.” -William W. Demastes, Alumni Professor of English, Louisiana State University”.

“Deathbed Wisdom of the Hasidic Masters: The Book of Departure and Caring for People at the End of Life” by Rabbi Joel Baron and Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow— Belief, Character and Spiritual Renewal

deathbed wisdom

Baron, Joel Rabbi and Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow (translators). “Deathbed Wisdom of the Hasidic Masters: The Book of Departure and Caring for People at the End of Life”, Jewish Lights, 2016.

Belief, Character and Spiritual Renewal

Amos Lassen

Important issues that we have been looking at lately are aging and death. I know that as I get older these become primary issues especially when I realize that I have outlived my parents and I do not see myself slowing down any time soon. My temple here in Brookline, Massachusetts has taken the theme of aging for the coming year and, in fact, our scholar-in-residence for this coming year is a rabbi who has spent many years looking and writing on that very subject. What is the coincidence here is that while I was at a meeting about planning next years adult learning schedule, I received an email telling me that this new book is coming out that was written by two Hebrew Senior Life rabbis that I know and to go one step further, attached to the announcement of the book there was a podcast between one of the translators, Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow and Rabbi Richard Address, the very person who is to be our scholar-in-residence.

One of the great resources of the Jewish religion is the collection of stories of Hasidic men that deal with the very issues I have mentioned thus far. However, there was a problem in that the stories had not all been translated into English and so many were deprived of the benefits of what they have to say. Regarding issues of death, we see that this is no longer true and thanks to Rabbi Joel Barron and Rabbi Sarah Paashe-Orlow, we can all see what they have to say.

Death comes for us all and we feel it in the deaths of loved ones. Every adult has to deal with losing someone to death at some point. While the finality of death can be and is usually devastating, there is also that difficult period of waiting as death approaches. We are commanded to take care of the ill and accompany the death to burial but often we have no idea how to deal with this. These are difficult chores for members of families but even more difficult for those who have no one.

The Hasidic masters had their ideas about this and they wrote them down as if to help us on this journey. We have stories of the final months, days, hours and moments of the lives of their rabbis and these were gathered together in what is known as . “The Book of Departure” (“Sefer haHistalkut”) that was first published in Hebrew in 1930 and is made up of the end-of-life stories of 42 holy men who died between 1760 and 1904. The stories show us something about the Jewish traditions about death and the afterlife as well as how to care for those who are in their last days.

Joel Baron and Sara Paasche-Orlow are Jewish chaplains as well as rabbis and here they use what they have learned and experienced clinically as well as their rabbinic knowledge. The translations, annotations and commentaries appear in a “facing-page format”. They look at the stories here as narrative theology and the two rabbis bring their own experiences into conversation with those of the Hasidic masters and of the biblical, rabbinic and intellectuals who came before them.

We have certainly become aware, of late, of the importance of dealing with end of life issues but there is still a lot to do. I learned so much from this book and while I, myself, am in the last trimester of life, there are issues that I have not really thought about. This book is compassionately written and our two rabbis write about including what dying individuals fear, hope for and care about, and how family and professionals can sensitively be with them to their ends. It is the unique blend of scholarship, common sense and compassion that make this book such a great resource and I can see how its use will be beneficial to everyone and from individuals to institutions. I now both of the authors of the book and I would not have expected anything less than the brilliance and sensitivity with which they look at this very sensitive subject.

Just in case you have forgotten—the old rabbinic masters were a fount of knowledge and that tradition is carried on here and wonderfully so. Everyone loves a story and a story that explains the way we are has always been a part of our culture. For so long death has been considered something to be feared and as the end all of each of us. We see it here, however, as a transition to “other realms of knowing and being” . While I am not sure that I can agree with that or feel ready for those realms, I must say this is a beautiful thought.

The Hasidic masters use their stories for painless educative means and we can glean spiritual, ethical and personal knowledge from them. Some times we need someone to lead us to these stories and that is exactly what we have here. As I read, there were times when I felt that I was involved in a dialogue with God and I received answers to questions I have held within for so long. For that alone, this book is important but there are so many other reasons.

“OUTINGS”— A New Gay-Themed Series

outings poaster

“Outings”

A New Gay-Themed Series

Amos Lassen

“Outings” is a straight-to-DVD TV show consisting of, offering three thirty-minute episodes of a new gay-themed series. Rob Ward and Lloyd Eyre-Morgan wrote, direct and star in the show.

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The series follows a group of friends, with each episode continuing the story but focusing slightly more on a different fried in each. In Episode 1, Tom dumps Kane because despite being together for a year, they still haven’t had anal sex. Kane starts to wonder if he’ll ever get his life together, and whether the fact he does not like anal is going to affect the rest of his life. The second episode concentrates more on Kane’s friend Keigan, who has been asked to be his brother’s best man but doesn’t really want to do so because he doesn’t think much of his future sister-in-law. His tendency towards trying to escape reality shows a few self-destructive tendencies.

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The final episode takes place at a party that Kane and Kiegan’s friend Tim gives for his girlfriend Lucy. Before dating a women, Tim had always suggested he was gay. While there’s no doubt he cares for Lucy, some wonder whether he’s as bisexual as he suggests, and whether he’d be able to resist an offer from a hot guy.

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I love this show but it ends way too soon—just as we get to know the characters, it is over.While the episodes tell a continuing story, they also feature self-contained elements that work on their own.

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Hopefully there will be more episodes.

“Fair Play: How LGBT Athletes Are Claiming Their Rightful Place in Sports” by Cyd Zeigler— Gays and Sports

fair play

Zeigler, Cyd. “Fair Play: How LGBT Athletes Are Claiming Their Rightful Place in Sports”, Edge of Sports, 2016.

Gays and Sports

Amos Lassen

Cyd Zeigler is an expert in LGBTQ athletics and cofounder of the online magazine “Outsports”. In “Fair Play” he looks at the key moments that have shaped sports participation for openly LGBTQ athletes. He also shows that it is a myth that having a gay athlete on “a team’s roster is a ‘distraction’ and shares positive stories of younger athletes at high school and college levels who have come out to coaches, teammates, and family members” He argues that it is fear that holds back LGBT athletes and he reminds us that courage is a contagious feeling and emotion. What we get here is a perspective on heterosexism in athletics.

The book is a collection of essays about those athletes that have come out, about homophobia in the locker room, about the general culture of sports and about how the straight athletes can play an important role in the gay movement. We read about three in-the-news gay athletes, and how gay and lesbian sports participants will eventually change the level of acceptance of LGBTQ players.

When Cyd Zeigler started writing about LGBT sports issues in 1999, he was met with silence—no one wanted to talk about them. Today, this is a n important and major conversation in American society and it goes so much further than the sports movement.

The three athletes that take center stage here are NFL Hall of Famer Michael Irvin, transgender MMA fighter Fallon Fox, and NFL hopeful Michael Sam and it is through them that Zeigler gives contextual insights about elite sports. He provides the necessary steps to complete sports’ transformation and fully open athletics to LGBT people. Zeigler challenges the stereotypes and the rumors behind them and in doing so he challenges the idea that one should be ashamed to be gay.

“Crimson Souls” by William Holden— Becoming Nate

crimson souls

Holden, William. “Crimson Souls” Bold Strokes Books, 2016.

Becoming Nate

Amos Lassen

While Harvard University today has many open and out gay students, this was not always the case. Back in the 1920’s there was what is still known as the Secret Court that attempted to purge the school of its gay students. Phineas Nathanial Trescott was such a student and he fought back against the unjust purge of homosexual men. The members of the court were afraid of Trescott’s influence and he was thrown off a bridge to make his death look like he had taken his own life. As Phineas was dying, he was surprisingly granted the opportunity for eternal life and this would allow him to find those who participated in his murder. He becomes Nate, “The Midnight Barke, a shadower ruling over the dark realm of his Netherworld”. It has taken him eighty years to find all of his attackers and he is now facing the last of them.

This is speculative fiction that is quite dark that is a compelling read about a time that was and while it is disturbing at times, it is well written. Because the court actually existed at Harvard, this book is all the more interesting even though it is fiction.

In the first half of the book, we meet the characters that set the scene. Nate, however, remains enigmatic throughout. We only get pieces about him and the reader is left to bring those pieces together.

He I also very clever and determined. We then go back in time to learn how Phineas became Nate. He managed to get the last members of the court together at a dinner party where he executed his plan of torture and some of what you read will make you grimace in fear. This is not an easy or fun read because of Nate’s plan for vengeance and the sex scenes are both graphic and brutal. I have remarked in the past that William Holden is a good writer and he proves that here. I can only imagine the look on his face as he wrote this. 

 

“Primed for Violence: Murder, Anti-Semitism, and Democratic Politics in Interwar Poland” by Paul Brykcznski— Anti-Semitism, Nationalism and Violence in Poland

primed for violence

Brykczynski, Paul. “Primed for Violence: Murder, Anti-Semitism, and Democratic Politics in Interwar Poland”, University of Wisconsin Press, 2016.

Anti-Semitism, Nationalism and Violence in Poland

Amos Lassen

Poland elected its first president, Gabriel Narutowicz in 1922. Among his supporters were a Jewish political party and an opposing faction of anti-Semites who demanded that he resign. In a very short amount of time, riots broke out and a week later the new president was assassinated. The radical right then demanded that “ethnic Poles” are the only citizens who can run the country and the left want along with that.

Paul Brykczynski explores the complex role of anti-Semitism, nationalism, and violence in Polish politics between the two World Wars. Even though the book focuses on Poland, it sheds light on the rise of the anti-Semitic right in Europe and beyond, and on the impact of violence on political culture and discourse. While this is history, it reads like a novel and is a fascinating look at Poland.

“A Quiet Place” by Seicho Matsumoto— A Look at Japanese Society

a quiet place

Matsumoto, Seicho. “A Quiet Place”, translated by Louise Heal Kawai, Bitter Lemon Press, 2016.

A Look at Japanese Society

Amos Lassen

Tsuneo Asai got the news that his wife, Eiko, had died while he was on a business trip to Kobe. This was not totally unexpected because his wife has a heart condition. However, how she died and the circumstances around her death bother Asai. Eiko only left the house twice a week to go to meetings so it was quite strange that she was found dead in a small shop in a section of Tokyo where she never visited. Returning to Tokyo, Asai goes to the shop to apologize for the trouble his wife’s death might have caused and finds out that the Hotel Tachibana was near by and it was known to be a meeting place for secret lovers. As he investigates his wife’s past, he learns that she led something of a double life.

This is so much more than a mystery. We also get a look at the society of Japan as well as the daily life of people there. We learn that Asai felt that  there was something very strange about his wife’s death. He found no closure at the shop; rather he is thrown into the mystery that surrounds it.

One of the critics I read calls this a “social mystery” and that is an excellent way at looking at this. It is also quite a stylish mystery. Asai is something of an anomaly—- he is soft-spoken and a family man who writes poetry. His wife’s death drove him to panic ..

Matsumoto describes the workings of the Japanese police who cannot find a motive as to why he was killed. As the pressure on the police to solve this mystery, Asai begins making mistakes. I do not want to say anymore about the plot—-this is a mystery and to summarize the plot would ruin the read for those who want to do so. I can say however that this book pulled me in from the first page and then had me turning pages as quickly as possible hoping to find out what really happened. I must admit that mystery is not among the genres that I read regularly but the fact that this book deals with society and fate made it very special.

“Mascara, Mirth and Mayhem: Independence Day on Fire Island” by Susan Kravitz— Freedom to Be

mascara cover

Kravitz, Susan. “Mascara, Mirth and Mayhem: Independence Day on Fire Island”, KMW Studio, 2016.

Freedom to Be

Amos Lassen

“Mascara, Mirth & Mayhem: Independence Day on Fire Island” is a celebration human rights and freedom of expression. It is a collection of photographs taken by renowned photographer Susan Kravitz over the past thirty years at the annual LGBT event that is known as the Invasion of the Pines that is held every July 4th and involves participants from the Fire Island communities of Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines. This began in 1976, when a member of the Cherry Grove community had been denied service in a Pines’ restaurant because he had been dressed in drag. As a protest, a small group of Cherry Grove residents cross-dressed and took a water taxi to the Pines on Independence Day of that year, to stand up against this insult” by “invading” their neighboring community. Forty years later, the Invasion has evolved into quite a uniquely raucous event and brings thousands of people, straight and gay to celebrate.


Kravitz’s photographs capture the rebelliousness, the high camp, and the joy of the Invasion. They are provocative, introspective, sad and funny, and contain discreet (or not so discreet) sexual innuendo. They also reflect another journey, one that says something about the LGBT movement itself. From the fearful, AIDS-ridden years of the 1980s and 1990s, to the present when LGBT people are out and proud, the photographs celebrate a day to be free, to be whoever one wants to be, and to be gay.
Kravitz says, “My photographs are as much about the times in which they were taken as they are about the people who populate them. Ultimately, they are about human rights and freedom of expression seen through the lens of the Invasion,” There are eighty-eight color and black and white photographs in the book.

The Invasion was originally planned as a way to shock the neighbors and to protest their attitudes and snobbery. The invasion on every July 4th, is a moment on Fire Island equal to what happened at Stonewall in Greenwich Village. It has grown in size and extravagance each year to become a huge event of creative cross-dressing and a true independence. Along with the photographs of the original invasion, we get history and selected interviews of participants, then and now.