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
April 12: The Cure for Polio
The 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
Jaap 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