Monday, July 16, 2018


 Finally, after more than five years of research and writing, tens of thousands of miles flown, driven and traveled by bus, hours of interviews on three continents and untold drafts, The Tango War debuts on September 18.  And I am back to this blog!

I am profoundly glad the story of World War II in Latin America as I saw it will be out in the world.  But curiously, I'm already missing those research trips to small town archives such as I found in Blumenau and Joinville, towns in heavily German southern Brazil. There I could personally handle ephemera like invitations to the local Nazi movie night and satire from the times, propelling me back into an age before I was born. 

There I also saw first hand the kind of information local residents, cut off from many kinds of news by the war, were receiving in the mail, often about the devastation in Germany, where many still had families.

I also miss those trips to the classic mega-depositories of information such as the Rockefeller Archives in snowy (when I was there) upstate New York and the Hoover Institution on the campus of Stanford University, and The Royal Geographic Society in London. I even miss having to take an antihistamine before each visit to the Hemeroteca in Guatemala City where I could peruse years of original newspapers from the 1930s and 1940s, papers whose decomposing pages made me sneeze anyway.  Most of all I miss those interviews where generous sources pulled out albums and showed family photos. On the left below, Heidi Gurcke Donald touches an image of her father Werner, a young German businessman who married Heidi's mother Starr in California before they moved  to Costa Rica, where Heidi and her sister were born.  The family lived happily in Central America until all were taken to a U.S. concentration camp as suspicious "aliens."  Guatemala-born Maya Sapper, right, showed me a series of photos of her idyllic childhood among her family's coffee ranches in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, a memorable period that lasted until her father, too, was taken away by U.S. authorities during the war.

Heidi's and Maya's stories are told in The Tango War along with many others. Could I have told them without traveling from home, using books, phone and artifacts pictured only on the internet? Maybe. But they would not have been the same stories.  And Tango would not be the same book.

Order The Tango War from your your local independent bookstore or online  or wherever books are sold.

Visit and see the trailer

Monday, October 9, 2017


(While 20,000 witnessed the beatification of Fr. Stanley Rother in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on September 23, this was happening in Guatemala among the people where Rother served and was killed.)         

SANTIAGO ATITLÁN, GUATEMALA: Townspeople celebrated the beatification of their beloved “Padre Apla’s” with an outpouring of prayer, song and splendid display that commemorated his violent death and road to sainthood as the first U.S.-born martyr – although the faithful here claim Stanley Francis Rother as their own.
            “He is our example of love,” said Juan Ratzan Mendoza, who was married to his wife Antonia Ajcot by Rother, along with sixty other couples, two days before the Oklahoma priest’s murder by a government death squad.
            “He spoke our language well,” said 78-year old Maria Pablo Mendoza. At dawn on July 28, 1981, men went through the streets crying, “They killed our priest!”  His parishioners had expected it. Maria Pablo said she heard the church bells ringing and “wept and wept.”
            This town on the rim of sapphire blue Lake Atitlan, surrounded by three volcanoes, was one of the hardest hit in violence that cost 200,000 lives during Guatemala’s 26-year war that ended in 1996. Most of the dead were unarmed indigenous Maya, like the Tz’tujil Maya who live here, cut down by a brutal army. I don't want to desert these people, Rother wrote to the bishops of Tulsa and Oklahoma City in 1980.  He hid threatened men and boys, and decried attacks before officials.  The government regarded the indigenous as allies of the leftist guerrillas because they wanted the same kind of changes the guerrillas said they wanted. 
“The low wages that are paid, the very few who are excessively rich, the bad distribution of land -- these are some of the reasons for the widespread discontent,” Rother wrote to his bishops. “The Church seems to be the only force that is trying to do something [about] the situation, and therefore the government is after us.” Thirteen priests and hundreds of catechists were killed nationwide during the violence.
Washington supported the Guatemalan government.
On the eve of the beatification, upon a rise where a Maya temple once stood, parishioners filled one of the oldest churches in the Americas (capacity: 1500), St. James the Apostle. For five hours they celebrated mass, watched a documentary about Rother’s life and a startling, dramatic recreation of his murder by parish youth. Having arrived by boat, the papal nuncio Archbishop Nicolas Henry Theveni took almost an hour to walk the brief blocks from dock to church, regaled by children and townspeople, who are called Atitecos. The church went dark as women in traditional woven dress and indigo head shawls processed with candles, and an arc of candles flickered above the altar during veneration of the Blessed Sacrament.
The fervor of the hours felt memorable even to those who know the congregation well. “Inexplicable, extraordinary,” said Sister Concepción Xeché of the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist, a nurse in the hospital Rother founded. “This blessing will bear fruit in priestly vocations, real marriages, and example for the young.”
The next day men put on their best clothing woven through with images of birds and animals, and women gathered in the churchyard to wind yards of woven ribbon around their heads in a traditional headdress worn on the most important occasions. 
As Rother was being beatified in Oklahoma, Atitecos packed the local church until there was hardly room to move.
“Padre Apla’s was part of my vocation, of attention to the most needy,” said Fr. Manuel Yojcom, using the familiar name – Tz’utujil for Francis – by which Rother was known. Yojcom, a Tz’utujil priest from another lake village, San Pedro La Laguna, concelebrated the mass in honor of the beatification with Theveni, Bishop Gonzalo de Villa y Vásquez, and more than a dozen priests including Americans Fr. John Spain, a Maryknoll working in El Salvador, and Rother’s successor in Santiago until 1996, Fr. John Vesey.
“This is a blessing for the poor, to see him recognized,” said Vesey as he watched parishioners still streaming into the church. “I hope this will inspire Guatemala to recognize all their holy martyrs.”
When Rother was killed the Catholics of Santiago begged to keep his heart, and the blood that spilled at his death, and Rother’s family agreed.  The relics have been enclosed in an altar, kept from view, under Rother’s picture. After the mass, Archbishop Theveni led a procession through the streets while holding high a monstrance containing a glass vial of Rother’s blood.

Considering Stanley Rother’s humble beginnings it is safe to say he would have been amazed to see the events in his honor. “He did not act superior, he was one of us,” said parish council president Gaspar Mendoza, the president of the parish council. On the day Rother was born in 1935 in Okarche, Oklahoma one of the worst storms of the Dust Bowl era was blowing through the family farmstead. While his mother, Gertrude, was in labor with her first-born, his father Franz was in the barn, where a mare was foaling.
            Perhaps the very reality of farm life that Stan Rother came to know, and the uncertainties inherent in farming – will the crop fail with the bad weather? – helped to make him feel at home in Santiago, where men and boys dig the soil to plant corn and beans, and women stand knee-deep in the lake to slap the family wash against rocks. Rother spoke the same language of working the earth to produce food as local peasants did. He was physically strong, and “he could fix things,” Atitecos say, not only a priest but a mechanic, carpenter and farmer pitching in where needed.
            Stanley Rother almost didn’t make it to Santiago, indeed he almost never became a priest. After six years, having wrestled with Latin – the language of textbooks -- and failed Theology twice, he was asked to leave the seminary.
            When he went home the Rother family pastor from Holy Trinity Church in Okarche accompanied father and son to meet with Oklahoma City Bishop Victor Reed, who recognized something in the disappointed young man, not the least his desire for the priesthood. He sent Rother to a different seminary, where he made fine progress and was ordained in 1963. In 1968 Rother answered a diocesan call responding to the request of Pope John XXIII for priests, sisters and lay people to fill needs in Latin America.
            In Santiago Rother came to speak not only Spanish but the far more difficult Maya language of his parishioners, Tz’utuhil. The ancient tongue was unwritten until 1966 when Father Ramon Carlin, Rother’s predecessor from the Oklahoma mission, began working with two parish men to commit its sounds to paper, a project pursued energetically by Rother. Most Atitecos then did not even speak Spanish, and many women still do not. On one anniversary of Rother’s assassination, upon the coffin that represented his remains, parishioners placed a folder that held the Tz’utujil translation of the Holy Mass.
Rother took grave risks to make sure the translation of the New Testament continued despite the violence, secretly moving a threatened translator, Juan Mendoza, to a safe house in Guatemala City, visiting him to bring food, and when possible, Mendoza’s wife and five children. “Padre Apla’s was enculturating the gospel for us,” making it understood in the world of the Tzutujil faithful, said Mendoza’s son Juan Ramon, 43.
But collaborating with the American priest was dangerous. Juan Ramon remembers how Rother stood with the family under the burned beams of their house after attackers set it afire, and tried to convince his father to go into exile. “ He said, ’I won’t lose anything by staying, I have no family, but you do.’” But Juan Ramon’s father wanted to finish the work, and be near his family. A year after Rother’s assassination, a death squad pulled Juan Mendoza from a bus, and he was not seen again. Today his son heads a parish committee to pray for Rother’s cause and tell his story. “He planted a good seed in us,” he said.
Just as he wanted scripture deeply understood by the Tz’utujil, Rother was also open to traditionalists who practiced an older Maya form of Christianity. Brotherhoods called cofradias helped the earliest Spanish friars carry out liturgies, then cared for the church and its images for centuries when Santiago had no resident priest, provided social services and prayed in a way that included ancient ways. Rother walked in procession with present-day cofrades, even though some consider them throwbacks, pagan, and he befriended them as individuals. He believed the Tz’utujil past was an important part of the Atitecos’ present, of who they were as a people, and deserved evangelization with this in mind.
Miguel Pablo Sicay, 42, a cofradia sacristan, compares Rother to a Maya prophet, Francisco Sojuel, who appeared “in a time of hunger” and “made the land produce,” improving lives. Rother had a “very special way” with the sacraments, said Sicay. “He talked about equality of people, and equilibrium, that people should love each other, like the harmony of our Maya cosmovision – he said this was the word of God.”
I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of these do you wish to kill me? Solola Bishop Angélico Melotto quoted Jesus’ words in a mass for Rother shortly after his death.
Some peasant farmers had to walk three hours to their subsistence fields; Rother started a 110-acre co-operative where they could experiment with fertilizers, higher-yield corn and try new crops – garlic, rice, wheat as a cash crop, Haas avocados from seeds he brought from the States. He brought in the first tractor most had seen. He began a weaving cooperative that helped women to earn cash, starting with priests’ stoles. Santiago’s undernourished children often died young – a measles epidemic killed 600 in 1964 --and for people of all ages treatable conditions like diarrhea, flu, or an infected machete cut could be a death sentence; Rother started a hospital that still serves the community, helping to build its walls with his own hands.
“His social works were important not because they were social but because as a pastor he realized it was difficult for people to be spiritually strong while they were physically damaged, hungry,” said the papal nuncio in an interview with NCR. Rother tended his parishioners, said Archbishop Thevenin, “without politics – only with his heart.”
            Rother’s martyrdom came most directly from his commitment to accompany the people of Santiago in their darkest hour, instead of fleeing as other clergy in the country and even a bishop felt forced to do.  “A shepherd does not leave his flock,” he said.
On January 7, 1981, an army truck hit a guerrilla mine and soldiers killed eighteen defenseless civilians in retribution. The bloodied bodies were laid out in the church square but only the bravest wives and mothers had the courage to defy the terror of the army and claim loved ones.  Stan stood by each woman as she did, one by one, and when seven bodies remained unclaimed, he brought them inside, had coffins made and gave them a Christian burial. In early 1981, Rother’s name appeared on a death list. He continued to check morgues and hospitals in distant towns when his catechists or other parishioners went missing, or searched the roadside where a body might have been thrown. He kept careful account of widows and children left behind even though “helping these people could very easily be considered subversive by the local government,” he wrote. In July, 1981, word spread that the army was going to forcibly recruit local youth during the town’s saint’s day fiesta, so he opened the church to five hundred young men who slept on the floor.
            “Even when we were sleeping inside we could hear gunshots,” said Diego Chavez, who stayed inside the church three nights then slept in a series of houses to avoid capture.  In happier times, Chavez helped his father carve a magnificent wooden altar at Rother’s request that reflected all aspects -- including the traditional  -- of the spiritual life of the community.
            Rother never denied his precarious situation with the army, but often said he would not be taken alive.  He would not risk divulging information under torture that could harm others, did not want parishioners to go through the experience of searching for his body.  On July 28, 1981, three armed men in ski masks forced the rectory guardian to lead them to Rother’s room. He called out, “Father, they are looking for you,” and the priest opened the door to protect the young man. Rother shouted, “Kill me here!” and fought so hard that the skin on his fists was torn bare and his blood leaped onto a wall. Finally one of the attackers got off two shots, one to Rother’s face, the other to his left temple.
Sisters sleeping in another part of the building heard the noise and rushed to the scene, but all they could do was pray, and reverently gather their pastor’s spilled blood into the handiest receptacle, a Mason jar. In recent preparation for the beatification, two people who saw the blood said it looked as if it had been shed yesterday, red, liquid.
Gaspar Mendoza, 51, who received his first Holy Communion from Rother, considered the priest’s last moments. “Maybe his body felt fear, but his spirit, no,” he said.



BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- In recent years, Argentina has been recognized for its work bringing to justice perpetrators of state crimes, including mass murder, during the right wing military dictatorship of 1976-1983. But now Argentines are beginning to worry that progress toward justice for these crimes is under threat.

Ana Maria Careaga is one torture survivor who is not willing to forgive and forget the terror she lived through during the dictatorship.  Careaga was 16 years old and four months pregnant in June 1977 when armed men captured her and put a black hood over her head.  They took her to a building in Buenos Aires that looked like a warehouse and was manned by the army.  Like her fellow prisoners, she was charged with anti-government sympathies, and was blindfolded around the clock, hung from her arms and legs, and shocked in her private p;arts with an electric cattle prod.

While Careaga was being tortured, her mother, Esther Ballestrino Careaga, whose two sons had been "disappeared" the previous year, searched for her daughter.  Esther was a co-founder of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group of women looking for their kidnapped children.

Esther Ballestrino held a doctorate in chemistry and worked in a Buenos Aires laboratory where she supervised a young chemical assistant who would later become a Jesuit priest, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis.  Francis would later call Esther a "great woman" who taught him "the seriousness of hard work" and showed him that Marxists could be "good people."

Ana Maria eventually was released and the family fled to Sweden where her healthy boy was born, but her mother Esther returned to Argentina to continue to pressure the government to return missing children.

In the week before Christmas, 1977, armed men captured aEsther, other members of the Mothers of the Disappeared, and two French nuns working with them and took them to the naval mechanics' school known as ESMA, which also functioned as one of the government's largest torture centers.  A few days later Esther and others were injected with a soporific and taken to a helicopter in which they were flown over the wide River Plate and dropped to their deaths.

Today the ESMA where Esther Careaga and some 5,000 other were held, is a bulwark against forgetting, a public memorial to the disappeared, its spaces carefully preserved with descriptions of what happened in each.

One of the most chilling spaces is a plain, small room with pale walls where pregnant prisoners were taken in their seventh month of pregnancy and given a glass of milk and piece of fruit every day, in addition to the gruel given to the other prisoners.  When the women in the small room gave birth, attended by doctors and nurses, the babies were given to officers and their friends and the new mothers were killed.

For years the Mothers of the Disappeared, and the Grandmothers of the Disappeared, have fought to find some 500 babies born in that room and ones like it.  In late April, Argentine papers announced that the 122nd missing "grandchild" was "recovered" and reunited with members of his family.

"What has happened has generational effects," says Ana Maria Careaga.  The children born to the murdered mothers and given over for adoption, she says, have lived their lives "in a mistaken genealogy."

Reports and human rights advocates have long put the number killed during the dictatorship at approximately 30,000.  In recent years more than 700 people, mostly individuals who had been part of the military have been convicted and sentenced to prison.  Today about 500 remain in prison, including Alfredo Astiz, a notorious torturer known as the Blond Angel of Death who was implicated in the capture of Ana Maria's mother Esther Ballestrino, and medics who assisted in the birthing room of the ESMA torture center.

When a May 3 Supreme Court ruling opened the door for early release of those convicted of crimes against humanity, demonstrators erupted in protest.

Thousands marched in the central Plaza de Mayo on May 10 to send a message to the country's judges.  "Trial and Punishment -- no Genocide Perpetrators Free!" read some signs. "To Judges: Never Again! read others.  Many carried 1970s-era photos of the disappeared, young people smiling as in images taken from school yearbooks.

With exceptional speed, the Argentine Congress passed legislation that forbade the law used by the Supreme Court to be used in cases of crimes against humanity.  Nevertheless, some worry that the Supreme Court decision, although it was overturned in light of public protest, indicates that the government is capable of shifting course and denying its past.

The decision came in the wake of a statement made  by President Mauricio Macri that he "didn't know" how many died in the paroxysm of state violence, that it may be as low as 9000. Juan Gomez Centurion, a military veteran serving as Customs Director, said "there was no systematic plan for the disappearance of people."

Such revisionist-style comments and the c kurt decision have Argentine activists and relatives of the disappeared concerned that denial about the horrific period is officially taking root.  The Argentine Church, whose hierarchy supported the military during the violence, is now calling for "reconciliation." For some the call supports impunity.

"I was glad to be in a country emblematic for human rights," 77-year old former nurse Gladys Cuero told the Buenos Aires daily Pagina 12 after the Supreme Court decision.  During the dictatorship, Cuero was subjected to water boarding burned with cigarettes, and forced to experience "other things that no normal person could imagine."

Cuero said she felt that the nation had been on the right track, "but now I am going to get my guard up again."

The violence of the dictatorship remains an open wound to thousands who survived torture or lost loved ones.

"You cannot forget by decree," Ana Maria Careaga said.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Book Writing

I'm almost always inside looking out these days, writing my Tango War book about the struggle between Nazis and the Allies over Latin America during World War II.  I love the work, but it means my blog posts are fewer these months.  Thank you for visiting.  Hope to be back soon!

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Listen to Those Who Burned When Considering Changing Japan's "Peace Constitution"

Nagasaki, 1945

One day we heard 'he has come home!' so we ran to the house.  But it was his remains. I cried....I thought to myself, 'I will never make war again in my life.'"

---Tosirhiro Fukahori, age 11, Nagasaki, 1945. Living Beneath the Atomic Cloud. The Testimony of the Children of Nagasaki. 1949.

Kazuko Kojima was born in a crowded bomb shelter where her mother was still hiding two days after the first atomic explosion in Hiroshima.  A midwife who happened to be in the shelter helped with the delivery, then died of radiation poisoning.  Like many female survivors of irradiated Hiroshima, looked down upon by many Japanese as tainted by the bomb, she grew up with no expectation of marriage. But before her mother died of cancer a marriage was arranged between Kojima and “a kind man,” much older than herself, and a healthy baby was born. When I interviewed Kojima in Hiroshima in the 1980s, balancing the infant on her lap, she told me that because of her child, she wanted to fight against nuclear weapons.
Model of Fat Man, dropped on Hiroshima from the Enola Gay
On the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, when more than sixty thousand persons died in the once beautiful city, atom bomb survivors called hibakusha, who can look back on the experience, as Kojima can, met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and asked him to change his mind about revising the Japanese constitution to allow Japan to engage in war.  The U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and three days later, Nagasaki, where 40,000 died immediately and 40,000 later from the bomb’s effects, are the only times, so far, nuclear weapons have been used in warfare. Today the post-war “Peace Constitution,” written by U.S. occupation forces but hugely popular with many Japanese through the decades, is up for grabs. That is a shame, because for decades Japan has shown that a pacifist constitution can work. Hibakusha, who suffered under the ultimate technological weapon of war, are at the heart of Japan’s anti-war movement, and their voices are worth listening to.

     When the bomb fell on her home town of Nagasaki, cleaning woman Tsuyo Kataoka told me in that seaport city that the rays that burned her clothes from her body and temporary blindness prevented her from seeing the destruction around her for weeks. 
        “That atom bomb gave enough agonies to all of us,” she told me.  It shouldn’t be allowed to happen to someone else.”
     Until a visit by Pope John Paul II in 1981, survivors like Kataoka from Nagasaki, home of Japan’s largest Christian community, believed, as many non-Christians did too, that firebombing and especially the atom bombs were a kind of divine retribution for Japan’s wartime actions, or even for personal “sins.” The pope said that was not only bad theology, but a good way to invite history to repeat itself.

     “War is the work of man,” said the pope.  “The waging of war is not inevitable or unchangeable.”  There was no justification, he said, “for not raising the question of the responsibility of each nation and each individual in the face of possible wars and of the nuclear threat.” After years of keeping her experience to herself, Kataoka became an anti-war activist.
Hiroshima, after the bomb was dropped
     A calligraphy teacher, Hiromu Morishita was standing near a river over a mile from the blast’s hypocenter, and survived despite terrible burns. “I came across a group of soldiers whose skin was completely peeled off, like reptiles, below their cap lines,” he recalled when we talked.  “Right after the blast my friend asked me what he looked like, and because his skin was hanging like rags I told him, ’like a melted candle.’ I was obviously in the same condition, but the possibility didn’t occur to me at the moment.”
     Survivors appear frustrated that their stand has made no impression on the Prime Minister, whose government is pushing through bills to weaken the peace constitution.
     "The longer discussion went on, the clearer it became that they were just trampling on the constitution and its renunciation of war and military strength," a member of the survivors group said, according to the Reuters news agency.
     I do not know whether the survivors I spoke to in the 1980s are still alive.  If they are, I believe it is not likely that they, who experienced the atomic bombs in their own flesh and blood, or their daughters and sons, will give up the fight easily. In Japan, I recall one hibakusha in particular, a doctor, who told me speaking out against war was “the only way we can make sense of the fact we survived.”
Hiroshima. Lanterns commemorating the dead floating on river in front of the Peace Dome.
(My travel to Japan was supported by a grant from the Hiroshima International Cultural Foundation.)

Saturday, May 30, 2015

In Lisbon -- Echoes of World War II

            There are corners of Lisbon where you can breathe the air of the time of Tango War, the years when turmoil around World War II cut through Latin countries on both sides of the Atlantic. The café where poet Fernando Pessoa wrote every day is still open just off one side of the Rossio Square, and on the other side, tables are full at the Pasteleria Suicá where spies with a variety of allegiances met over dark espressos and egg custard tarts. 
Jewelry stores still offer gold, the bottom-line investment of those days, and pocket shops dispense shots of cherry ginjinha liquor. 
Towering over the square stands a pedestal topped by the figure of Peter IV, King of Portugal, who became Pedro I, Emperor of Brazil. 
Linked to Brazil especially by history, culture and language, and to Argentina and the rest of the South American continent by the politics of Catholicism, in the 1930s and 1940s neutral Portugal served as safe haven and funnel for spies, refugees and war criminals, many of whom found their way to the Americas.
     Along with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar (Prime Minister 1933-1968) supported Franco and the Fascists in the Civil War in neighboring Spain. He supplied precious resources, such as wolframite, to the Wehrmacht, and saw the Reich as a bulwark against democracy and communism. Yet Salazar was not racist – he wrote a book criticizing the 1935 Nuremburg Laws that codified Nazi race theory and anti-Semitism.  Salazar reverted to a treaty with the English from the time of the Crusades to insist that Portugal could not align itself with the Axis during the war. 

Railroad Station
Thus Lisbon, the elegant city on the Tagus River Estuary that flows into the Atlantic, a city of trolleys climbing its hills and exquisite tiles facing old buildings, became a haven for the grateful escaping repression, and worse. And for the fortunate with money from both sides, securing their wealth or risking it at card tables and roulette wheels – stories abound of Reich officers gambling side by side with Jewish businessmen and Middle Eastern oil potentates at the Casino above the sands of Estoril beach at Lisbon’s edge. And, a haven for the nefarious, plotting, plotting amid the blooming purple jacaranda trees.
Window today of Bertrand's, World's Oldest Bookstore (1732)

Tango War, the book, is coming.