April 22: This Guy’s In Love with You
Trumpet player Herb Alpert sang a Burt Bacharach/Hal David song, “This Guy’s In Love with You,” to his wife Lani Hall on a CBS television special on this date in 1968. A deluge of calls from fans to the television station convinced Alpert to release the song as a single two days later, and it became a number 1 hit for for four weeks. Alpert’s father was a mandolin-playing tailor from the Ukraine; Alpert’s mother, from Romania, was a violinist. He was already a hitmaker, with six Grammy Awards with his Tijuana Brass band, by the time he released “This Guy’s . . .” — and although the band had no Hispanic musicians, it did create a broad popular taste for Latin-flavored band music. Today Alpert is a recording industry executive with A&M Records (“A” for Alpert, “M” for Jerry Moss), a painter and sculptor, and a philanthropist through the Herb Alpert Foundation. To see the music video in which he introduced the song, look below.
“There was a point with the Tijuana Brass where we were playing for such huge crowds that I kind of lost contact. At one point, the only connection I had with the audience was with people out there lighting cigarettes.” —Herb Alpert
April 21: The Strangest Man in Baseball
Moe (Morris) Berg (1902-1972), the only Major League Baseball player whose baseball card is on display at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, played in his 117th consecutive game without committing an error, a record for an American League catcher, on this date in 1934. Described by Casey Stengel as “the strangest man ever to play baseball,” Berg was a Princeton graduate among rural farmboys in the big leagues, and worked as a spy for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, assigned to evaluate Yugoslavian anti-Nazi resistance forces and to find out if Germany was developing nuclear weapons. Berg read ten newspapers each day and was a linguist of whom it was said that he could speak twelve languages but couldn’t hit in any of them. A strong defensive catcher, he was a weak hitter (and slow runner) who batted .243 over the course of his career, which spanned sixteen years to 1939. After his spying career also ended, in the 1950s, he spent two decades as a drifter, living with family members and friends.
“As early as 1934, Berg toured Japan with a group of major league all-stars, including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. During the trip, Moe was invited to lecture at Meiji University, where he delivered an eloquent speech in Japanese. Few Americans at this time spoke the language, and the lecture made Berg a beloved figure among the Japanese people. It seems, however, that before the trip the U.S. government had recruited Berg as a spy, supplying him with a motion picture camera despite the fact that it was forbidden for foreigners to film in Japan. In Tokyo, ostensibly on a visit to the daughter of the American ambassador to Japan who had just given birth, Berg snuck onto the hospital roof and filmed Tokyo harbor. Berg then snuck the film out of Japan. He later bragged that the Air Force used his films to plan their retaliatory raids on Tokyo after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor . . .” —Michael Feldberg, American Jewish Historical Society
April 20: Morris Chafetz and the Nature of Alcoholism
Dr. 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
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.
“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
Superman 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
April 17: Daffy Duck
Daffy 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
The 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
On 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
John 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
A 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