Holocaust, old Baltimore, a house

Books Of The Region

April 09, 2000|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,Special to the Sun

Long after World War II, Naomi Rosenberg and her family were still sending food, clothing, penicillin to rural Poland -- to Maria Kowalik and her seven children. It was Kowalik who, ever apprehensive, had let Naomi, her mother and two other children live under her barn floor and fed them, for more than two years. Once, German soldiers, searching, pried up floorboards -- at the wrong spot.

For warmth and silence, Naomi and her brother Josh spent so much time curled up that when liberated by Russian soldiers they could only crawl. It took months to realign their leg muscles.

Married after coming to this country, and now a grandmother and a Baltimorean, Naomi Samson relives all this in "Hide: A Child's View of the Holocaust" (University of Nebraska Press, 194 pages, $15).

The standard for Holocaust accounts, still and always, is Anne Frank's diaries. Samson's strength is not art but simplicity. In this country, people keep urging her to live for today, to let go of the past. Her account of horror, written down at last, has the immediacy of a nightmare. Samson still has nightmares, Nazis and all.

The rest of us could wonder why, in view of world events then and since, we have so few nightmares about race and tribe obsessions.

When Fred Weisgal wasn't championing the underclasses before the governments of Maryland and then Israel, when he wasn't playing jazz piano or cutthroat cards, and when he wasn't being optimistic about any given outcome, he would simply crack a joke.

Most of those impromptu jokes aren't worth retelling; but his other involvements, as set forth by Barbara Mills in "... And Justice For All: The Double Life of Fred Weisgal, Attorney & Musician" (American Literary Press. 525 pages, $27.95), make for a book of real merit.

His father, Abba, was a prominent cantor, his brother Hugo a prominent composer. His own bent was for the hurly-burly of civil rights and civil liberties. Yet Fred Weisgal, the defense counsel who sometimes argued cases before the Supreme Court, was also Freddie, an abundantly raffish party lion.

The battlefronts of the 1950s and 1960s, when most of the region's authority figures were upholding the status quo -- movie censorship, loyalty oaths, compulsory ROTC, public school prayer, female subservience and, most especially, racial barriers -- are a bit dreary as they pass in review.

Weisgal household matters, as some of the children run more than wild, are painful to recall. Offsetting this are full candor, a questioning personal voice (in asides from author to reader) and no index -- to learn in what connection he or she has been mentioned, a Baltimorean will have to do some reading.

In 1969, the Weisgals moved to Jerusalem, 18 years later moved back; Fred died in 1991 at age 72. Barbara Mills, who lives now in Rhode Island, knew him (as did I), and his wife Jeanne gave access to extensive files. Beyond the speaking likeness, what Mills accomplishes is a closeup of the hectic Baltimore of a generation ago: a city in which a buoyant extrovert could pound piano pedals, waken dragons, laugh away the blood spill and thrive.

Fells Point is splendidly various, so it's no stretch for Tim Cockey, a television story expert, to embellish Foot of Broadway with a funeral parlor. As the corpses come and go, in his novel "The Hearse You Came In On" (Hyperion, 309 pages, $22.95), perhaps it's less upsetting for some of them to have died unnatural deaths.

And the undertaker business has enough interims for Hitchcock Sewell, the co-owner, to busy himself instead with a series of homicides elsewhere in contemporary Baltimore. He pairs off with Kate Zabriskie, a police department detective, whose husband was one of the fatals and whose own role is murky.

Youth, good looks, bedtime and local atmosphere are lavished upon the reader. (It should read Formstone, not flagstone; Green Mount Cemetery, not Greenwood. Egad, the B. & O. Railroad rises from its grave.) Peabody Institute Library, the Cone Collection, Charles Village, Five Farms -- Tim Cockey, former Baltimorean, does not involve Cockeysville. And he invents a waterfront saloon, the Screaming Oyster, that outfrolics anything in TV's "Homicide" or "Cheers."

If the story line has a few thin spots, and his hero is also a bit of a jerk, small matter. "Hearse" brims with the breeziest dialogue in many bookstores around.

Both the left and the right have been fragmenting, in national politics, and a citizen could wonder whether "civic coherence is beyond society's reach in this furious age." The quote is from "The Civic Deal: Re-Empowering Our Great Republic" by Richard Striner (Pericles Institute, 229 pages, $15.95).

But this is America: built and usually run by practical people. For it, Striner proposes a future course that is coherent, practical, even sensible.

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