April 20: Morris Chafetz and the Nature of Alcoholism

dt.common.streams.StreamServerDr. Morris Chafetz, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist who headed the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and was a key figure in redefining alcoholism in the public’s perception from a personal sin to a disease, was born in Worcester, Massachusetts to immigrant parents on this date in 1924. Chafetz entered the field of alcoholism treatment simply because it offered him a job after his graduation from medical school, but after a “few months of listening to these patients,” he said in a 1995, he “recognize[d] my prejudices and the prejudices of others. I realized that this issue reflected every social health policy problem being faced by the country. . . . Having experienced the extent of my own prejudices and my own ignorance of the issue, I was bound and determined to turn the country around and to treat alcoholics as ill human beings who needed treatment, not as bad people who should be ignored and neglected.” Between 1970 and ’75, Chafetz founded the NIAAA and built its budget from $6.5 million to $214 million. He wrote and coauthored many books, included Alcoholism and Society (1962), The Alcoholic Patient: Diagnosis and Management (1983) and The Encyclopedia of Alcoholism (1982). Chafetz died by his own hand at age 87 in 2011, one day after his wife of sixty years passed away.

“Alcohol is here to stay, and people must learn to develop a healthy attitude toward it.” —Morris Chafetz


April 19: Stopping a Convoy to Auschwitz

220px-Youra_Livchitz_(1917-1944)A train of Transport 20, bound from Belgium for Auschwitz with 1,631 Jewish men, women and children, as well as a Sonderwagen with 19 resistance members and escapees from previous transports (who were marked a cross painted in red, indicating that they should be executed immediately at Auschwitz), was stopped on the tracks in Belgium on this date in 1943 by Youra Livchitz, a young Jewish doctor and resistance fighter, and two non-Jewish comrades, Robert Maistriau and Jean Franklemon, who carried only one pistol and a red lantern among them. They successfully signalled the train to a halt, then opened one rail car and liberated 17 people while firing on the guards to create an impression of being a large attack group. Soon they themselves were driven off by gunfire, but because the train driver, Albert Dumon, deliberately drove very slowly and stopped frequently to allow people to jump without being injured or killed, 236 in all escaped, 115 without being killed or recaptured. Dr. Livchitz was arrested by the Gestapo one month later, but managed to overpower his guard and escape; he was rearrested in June and executed by firing squad the following year. His two compatriots in the train rescue survived the war. The entire Transport 20 delivered 25,257 Jews and 352 Roma to Auschwitz, of whom only 1,205 returned home alive.

1466130407220651g“We were lying in the thicket. Thumping hearts. The grinding of brakes. It was unreal. The train rode through a signal; that I could see from my position. We looked at each other. Suddenly, the realization. It stopped. It stopped! I think that deep in our hearts we hadn’t considered that possibility. It was more a case of: we’ll put the lamp there and see what happens. Jean stayed seated, Youra fiddled with the pistol. There was the train, in the dark. Seconds, minutes — I no longer remember — went by. Nothing happened. No noise, nothing. I sat on the verge. I thought, ‘this will be the death of me’. I stood up and brought out my pincers. I hesitated. Too long perhaps. But I took my torch and walked to the last carriage.” -Robert Maistriau



April 18: Strange Visitor from Another Planet

18Superman saved the life of an innocent woman on death row, stopped a man from beating his wife, and brought a corrupt politician to justice in his first appearance in Action Comics on this date in 1938. Created five years earlier by Jerry Siegel, and drawn by his Cleveland high school friend Joe Shuster, Superman, according to Siegel’s daughter Laura Larson, was able to champion many of the causes that Siegel believed in and to fight “very real social evils his readers were powerless to conquer . . . What he could not do, he had Superman do.” The “true genius of Superman,” she continues, “is both his dual identity and his compassion for the human race. He chose to use his unsurpassed powers for the good of mankind, usually for people he didn’t know.” Action Comics was launched by Jack Liebowitz, with a print run of 200,000 copies; Superman was a last-minute addition from the slush pile. Siegel and Joe Shuster were paid $10 per page, or $130 for their work on this first strip. Action Comics #1 is the only comic book that has sold for more than $2 million for a single issue.

“Early, Clark decided he must turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind . . . and so was created ‘Superman’, champion of the oppressed . . .” -Jerry Siegel

Daffy Duck Cartoon Vector 1-500x500

April 17: Daffy Duck

Daffy Duck Cartoon Vector 1-500x500Daffy Duck made his first appearance on this date in 1937 as a bit player in “Porky’s Duck Hunt,” starring Porky Pig. Mel Blanc provided the voice for Daffy, and would do so for 52 years, a world record. In the hands of various cartoon directors, Daffy proved to be a very elastic character, but always with a hint of hysteria and hyperactivity. During World War II, Daffy battled a Nazi goat intent on eating Daffy’s scrap metal in “Scrap Happy Daffy,” and also hit Adolf Hitler over the head with a giant mallet in “Daffy the Commando.” In the 1950s and ’60s, Daffy Duck was frequently paired with Porky Pig and, in a rivalrous manner, with Warner Brothers’ most popular character, Bugs Bunny (all three characters were voiced by Blanc). Film critic Steve Schneider calls Daffy “a kind of unleashed id” that “expresses all of the things we’re afraid to express.” Today, the irrepressible duck is voiced by Jeff Bergman, who also has replaced the late Mel Blanc for Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, and numerous others. To see Daffy outwitting the Third Reich in “The Commando,” look below.

“Well, kids, don’t let anyone tell you this show isn’t realistic!” -Daffy Duck


April 16: The Oncomouse

oncomouseThe U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ruled on this date in 1987 that animals created in laboratories can be patented. In April of the following year, Harvard was awarded the first patent under this ruling for the oncomouse, a mouse genetically engineered to be highly susceptible to breast cancer. The mouse was designed by Philip Leder (with Timothy A. Stewart of Genentech). Leder is best known for his work with Nobelist Marshall Nirenberg in the 1960s in the elucidation of the genetic code. His scientific group was also the first to define the base sequence of a complete mammalian gene, and he did key research into the structure of genes that carry the code for antibody molecules. According to Michael Crichton (writing in the New York Times in 2007), “Our genetic makeup represents the common heritage of all life on earth. You can’t patent snow, eagles or gravity, and you shouldn’t be able to patent genes, either. Yet by now one-fifth of the genes in your body are privately owned. . . . The results have been disastrous. Ordinarily, we imagine patents promote innovation, but that’s because most patents are granted for human inventions. Genes aren’t human inventions, they are features of the natural world. As a result these patents can be used to block innovation, and hurt patient care.”

“The genetic code allows us to see the beautiful construct that evolution has created. The genetic code is exquisitely important and, at the same time, aesthetically pleasing.” -Philip Leder


April 15: Escape from Ponary

9956de24-716d-4834-a560-9544c4aac8ecOn this date in 1944, seventy Jewish and ten Russian prisoners attempted to escape from the forests near Ponary, Lithuania (near Vilna) where they had been assigned to help dig up and burn the bodies of tens of thousands of people, mostly Jews, who had been murdered in those woods since 1941. “At night the prisoners were kept in a pit, and during the day they worked, with their legs in chains,” according to Yad Vashem, “removed bodies from the pits, arranged them in piles and burnt them. The prisoners knew that when they had finished working, they too would be murdered. At night they dug a 35 meter-long tunnel under the fence to a minefield.” After three months of digging, on the night of April 15th, “they filed off their chains and  . . . fled through the tunnel. They were discovered by the guards and most of them were caught or shot. Fifteen of them succeeded in escaping and eleven of them reached the partisans in the Rudniki forests.” The Soviet Red Army was about to enter Lithuania, and the Nazis were feverishly trying to get rid of evidence of their crimes.

An “underground newspaper, Laisve Kotovas, also reports that the Germans are exhuming Jewish corpses from mass-graves near Kaunas. The paper says that Lithuanian policemen refused to participate in the mass-executions of Jews, and were replaced by pro-Nazi Ukrainians and Russians and by members of the battalions led by the Russian commander Vlassov who deserted the Red Army and joined the Nazi forces.” -Jewish Telegraphic Agency, April 18, 1944


April 14: The Grapes of Wrath — and the Viking Press

logo_vikingpressJohn Steinbeck’s great novel of the Depression and the Dust Bowl, The Grapes of Wrath, was published on this date in 1939 by the Viking Press, a literary house founded by three Jews: Harold K. Guinzberg, the son of a major activist in the American Jewish Committee (and the father of Thomas Guinzberg, who founded The Paris Review); George Oppenheimer, who like Guinzberg was a Harvard graduate; and B.W. Heubsch, who was the first publisher in the United States of James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence before joining forces with Viking in 1925. Steinbeck’s book won the Pulitzer Prize as well as the National Book Award, and was made into a widely acclaimed movie in 1940. It was also widely attacked, and even banned, as socialistic. The Viking Press has been a major literary force through the decades, publishing Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939), Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949) and The Crucible (1953), most of Saul Bellow’s novels, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road (1957), as well as works by Hannah Arendt,  Geraldine Brooks, William S. Burroughs, Peter Matthiessen, Carol Brooks, Thomas Pynchon, Wallace Stegner, Nadine Gordimer, Barbara Tuchman, Don DeLillo, Robertson Davies, William Kennedy, Salman Rushdie, and J.M Coetzee, among many other literary greats. To see Henry Fonda delivering the final “Tom Joad” passage from the film, look below.

“As the first Jewish literary publisher (and a radical one at that) in the United States, Huebsch’s colophon was appropriately enough a menorah. In its cultural sallies, the Viking Press’ drakkar sought, with an invisible menorah on its bow, to cut through the dark seas of nativism and enlighten America as to the reality of its pluralism.” -Chris Green


April 13: The Medical Convoy Massacre

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA convoy of Jewish doctors, nurses, patients, teachers, and Haganah fighters was attacked by Arab forces en route to Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus on this date in 1948, bringing death to eighty people, including twenty women, one British soldier, and Dr. Chaim Yassky, director of the hospital. “Since Jews have been attacking us and blowing up houses . . .  from bases in Hadassah Hospital and Hebrew University,” said Abdul Kader Husseini, who headed Arab military forces in Jerusalem, “I have given orders to occupy or even demolish them.” Shortly after this pronouncement, Husseini was killed by a Hadassah Hospital worker. The attack on the convoy may have been in revenge for this, as well as for the Deir Yassin Massacre five days earlier, which killed more than 100 Palestinian Arabs, including women and children. Many argue, however, that the convoy massacre, which included an ambush, sniper fire, and shelling, was not an act of vengeance at all, but a premeditated part of Grand Mufti Hajj Amin al-Husseini’s plan for the ethnic cleansing of the Jews of Jerusalem and Palestine. The Jewish Agency declared the attack to be a violation of the Geneva Accords; the Arabs countered that the convoy, which included ten vehicles carrying both medical and military supplies, combined civilians and military forces in an indistinguishable way. The attack lasted for seven hours and took place within sight of a British military outpost.

“Hadassah officials said that British troops and police prevented Haganah enforcements from reaching the battle scene in time to aid the immobilized Jews . . . The same officials claimed that British police who witnessed the massacre from less than 100 yards away did nothing to defend the trapped Jews, most of whom were doctors, nurses and hospital patients.” -Jewish Telegraphic Agency, April 15, 1948


April 12: The Cure for Polio

sal0-005The one-year field trial of Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine, involving 1.83 million children in 44 states, was announced a success on this date in 1955. The Francis Field Trials were the first to use the double-blind method that became standard in drug-testing. Dr. Thomas Francis Jr., director of the Poliomyelitis Vaccine Evaluation Center at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, declared the vaccine to be “safe, effective, and potent.” The test was financed by $7.5 million in grants from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, including nearly two million dollars worth of donated dimes. Polio first took root in the U.S. in 1894, in Vermont. In 1908, Dr. Karl Landsteiner determined its cause to be a virus. An epidemic in 1916 brought death to 6,000 and paralysis to 27,000. The worst epidemic, in 1952, produced 57,628 cases. By 1957 polio cases in the U.S. had fallen by nearly 90 percent. Albert Sabin’s oral vaccine, field tested in 1961, marked the end of polio in the developed world: The Americas were certified polio-free in 1994; Europe in 2002. To see newsreel footage about the field trial of Salk’s polio vaccine, look below.

“The reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more.” -Jonas Salk


April 11: Jaap Penraat, Rescuer

0602stWWII2Jaap Penraat, who rescued 406 Jews from the Nazis by smuggling them from the Netherlands to Spain on twenty separate trips, was born in Amsterdam on this date in 1911. Penraat was an interior designer, architect and sculptor who began his resistance work by forging identity papers for Jews. After he was jailed for several months, he intensified his rescue work, using his forgery skills to convince the Nazis that his charges were slave laborers being transported to build Nazi fortifications in France. Ultimately Penraat was captured and tortured, but survived the war. He came to the U.S. in 1958, where he designed the Dutch Mill Cafe at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Yad Vashem recognized him in 1988 as among the Righteous Among the Nations, and Hudson Talbott wrote a children’s book about Penraat, Forging Freedom: A True Story of Heroism During the Holocaust.

“You’re there, a woman [clerk] walks away and either she comes back with papers or she comes back with soldiers.” -Jaap Penraat