Bearing Witness


“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”
― Elie Wiesel

Following Eva Clarke’s presentation, you may be forgiven for thinking the title “Against All Odds: Born In Mauthausen” is an understatement. Clarke was one of only three children (the “miracle babies”) born into captivity in the notorious KZ Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. As she relates it, the camp had run out of Zyklon shortly before her birth, or her mother surely would have died in the gas chamber. Nine days after her birth World War Two ended and the camp was liberated. Eva and her mother, Anka Bergman, were the only survivors of their extended family, other relatives having died in Auschwitz-Birkenau. In 1948 they emigrated to the UK and settled in Cardiff, Wales. Anka lived into her nineties, old enough to know three great-grandchildren.

Since her age at the time precluded first-hand memories of the Holocaust, Clarke focuses instead on her family’s history in the years just prior to the war. She describes in detail the incremental process by which the Nazis disenfranchised, segregated, dehumanized, and ultimately exterminated Jews in Czechoslovakia, her mother’s homeland. Dozens of laws were enacted to marginalize Jews, each more draconian than the last, until finally they were categorized as “undesirables” and shipped en masse to one of over 40,000 camps and ghettoes established throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. Clarke describes the rationalizations used by both their neighbors and by the affected Jews, including some of her relatives, to reassure themselves that “this isn’t so bad” and “it won’t get worse than this.” Sadly, they were wrong. As Clarke’s narrative attests, conditions in the camps – overcrowding, disease, starvation, arbitrary brutality, and profound despair – made them one of the most hostile man-made environments on the planet, and especially so for an 80-lb. pregnant woman. In this regard the “miracle” mentioned earlier is not so much that both Eva and Anka lived, but that anyone survived at all.

Eva Clarke cites four reasons for wanting to tell this story. The first is commemoration, to honor the memories of those millions who did not survive the Final Solution. The second is a desire to relate her family’s story, one that is unique but nevertheless representative of many others. The third is to enable her listeners to learn the lessons of the Holocaust. The final reason is to counteract any and all forms of racism and prejudice, a daunting task in view of the many genocides since World War Two – Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, Myanmar, South Sudan, to name but a few – but one we must undertake if the Holocaust’s lessons are to have any broader meaning in the modern world.

Watch Against All Odds: Born in Mauthausen with Eva Clarke — Holocaust Living History Workshop — The Library Channel.

Celebrating Paper Theater

Paper theater (also called toy theater) is a form of miniature theater dating back to the early Victorian era. Paper theaters were often printed on posters and sold as kits at playhouses, opera houses, and vaudeville theaters, and proved to be an effective marketing tool. The kits were assembled at home and the plays performed for family members and guests, sometimes with live musical accompaniment and sound effects.

At the height of its popularity over 300 European theaters were selling kits, but paper theater saw a drastic decline in popularity in the late 19th century as realism began to dominate the dramatic arts, and again with the arrival of television. Thankfully, paper theater survived near-extinction and has enjoyed renewed popularity in recent years among puppeteers, writers, hobbyists, designers, educators, and filmmakers. Several publishers now offer replicas of famous paper theater kits as well as new models, and there are numerous international paper theater festivals throughout the Americas and Europe.

One such festival is presented yearly at the UC San Diego Library under the direction of staffer and “paper devotee” Scott Paulson. The Library’s Paper Theater Festival (billed as “The Smallest Show on Earth”) features examples of the form from Paulson’s personal collection, as well as performances of student-authored plays. The exhibition runs the gamut of paper theater history and formats, including posters, pop-ups, postcards, and souvenir books. Paulson attributes his interest in the medium to seeing Franco Zeffirelli’s autobiographical film “Tea with Mussolini,” which prominently features a paper theater performance. Others are drawn by paper theater’s tactile nature and by its value as an interactive educational toy, one that serves to stimulate a child’s creativity. A number of well-known figures were introduced to art by paper theater or have worked with the form, including Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Winston Churchill, Edward Gorey, Maurice Sendak, Ingmar Bergman, Terry Gilliam, Pablo Picasso, and Orson Welles, to name just a few.

Like these luminaries Paulson appreciates paper theater both as a fascinating link to theater history and as an art form in its own right, one that celebrates craftsmanship and beauty on an intimate scale. He inaugurated the annual Festival in order to share his enthusiasm and to encourage others – children especially – to step away from our technocratic age for a time and let their imaginations take the lead.

Watch Celebrating Paper Theater.

Losing the Nobel Prize

When Alfred Nobel stipulated the creation of the Nobel Prize in 1895, the inventor of dynamite could hardly have guessed that the award – considered by many to be the world’s most prestigious honor – would often come at the expense of the very careers and the disciplines Nobel sought to promote. Per Nobel’s will the Prize is ostensibly awarded to those who “have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind,” but it has arguably fallen short of that commendable goal on several occasions.

In Losing the Nobel Prize, his provocative and incisive critique of the award, physicist and cosmologist Brian Keating addresses what he calls the Nobel’s “systematic biases,” noting that by its nature the Prize discourages communal efforts among scientists, and during its history has lauded such questionable pursuits as lobotomy and eugenics. Recipients have included Nazis and war criminals, but surprisingly few women. Upon reflection, perhaps not so surprising; Nobel’s will states that:

It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, so that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be a Scandinavian or not. [Emphasis added]

Since its inception, only two women have been awarded the physics prize, and none in over fifty years.

Keating is uniquely equipped to offer a perspective on the Nobel Prize. He is the inventor of BICEP (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization), the most powerful cosmological telescope ever made, and co-leader of the team that conducted the BICEP2 experiments that lead to discovery of “the spark that ignited the Big Bang.” After much drama and debate that discovery was subsequently proven to be a cosmic mirage, but in the interim Keating found himself drawn into the headlong pursuit of the Nobel medal, encountering competitiveness, intrigue, and naked ambition along the way. The lessons Keating learned in losing the Nobel Prize serve as a cautionary tale about abandoning the collaborative spirit in pursuit of a near-unobtainable prize, but also as a prescription for radical, much-needed reform of the world’s most coveted award.

Following his talk Keating chats with David Brin, noted science fiction author and futurist, in a lively conversation about the nature of scientific enquiry, the merit of awarding scientific prizes, the importance of collaboration, the need for transparency, and the urgent need to improve communication between scientists, policy makers, and the general public. Above all, both men stress that those lessons learned by Keating and outlined in his book may ultimately prove to be more valuable than the prize itself.

Watch Losing the Nobel Prize with Brian Keating.

More Dirt for Kids!

32822Rob Knight, the academic superstar who is leading the Center for Microbiome Innovation at UC San Diego, says it’s important for kids to get dirty! He explains that exposing children to natural bacteria in the environment trains their immune systems how to respond to foreign threats. So, resist that urge to sterilize everything kids touch because you’re not helping. Instead, let them roll around in the grass, swim in rivers and the ocean, and cuddle with dogs. You might wince at the contact, but the germs they meet will make them stronger in the long run.

To learn more, check out Rob’s book, “Dirt is Good,” or watch him here:

Dirt is Good: The Advantage of Germs For Your Child’s Developing Immune System with Rob Knight

Ann Patchett

Contributed by John Menier

8232Listed by Time magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2012, Ann Patchett is a true woman of letters: novelist, essayist, anthologist, and co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville. Patchett is also a frequent and accomplished public speaker, noted for her anecdotes about the literary life, her insights into the creative process, and her wry wit.

One of Patchett’s favorite topics is the ever-changing relationship between readers and books. As an example she cites her own evolution reading (and re-reading) the works of John Updike, Leo Tolstoy, Pearl Buck, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and others, noting that “the books don’t change, but we do.” Put another way, the reader’s evaluation of a particular book is shaped as much by the reader’s life experience and circumstances as by the work’s innate qualities. As such our appreciation (or lack thereof) for a particular title may change over time, but the consistent commonality among the books we treasure is that they never fail to evoke a strong response. Patchett believes the writer’s primary task is to elicit that response by inviting the reader to become an active participant in their story.

Patchett’s approach to the reading public is refreshingly un-elitist. She stresses the importance of what she calls “gateway drugs,” books of dubious literary worth that may encourage readers to explore other authors and genres. She applauds the success of “trashy” pop novels such as “Fifty Shades of Gray” and “Twilight,” no matter their pedigree, for their role in re-vitalizing book sales and energizing the publishing community. What matters most to Patchett as both author and bookstore owner is that the reading habit is fostered and encouraged, and in that endeavor, there’s no place for snobbery.

Click here to watch An Evening with Ann Patchett

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