Friday, December 25, 2009

Valkyrie’s Heroes



On this very day last year Bryan Singer released his motion picture Valkyrie—based on a true story of a cabal of Nazi officers who conspired to assassinate Adolf Hitler during the latter days of the war. July 20th 1944 represented the fifteenth known attempt by Germans to assassinate an evil tyrant propelling them into global shame.

You may be wondering why I’ve chosen to discuss this film today of all days. It’s Christmas Day, after all, the birthday of Jesus Christ, our savior. It is a day about birth, hope, wonder and joy; not death, shame and murder. Well, hear me out. Bryan Singer may have randomly chosen a Christmas Day release following several delays from the initial June release date. But I think the Christmas Day release was very appropriate. And fateful. And I’ll give you my reasons…after I discuss the motion picture and the German Resistance, that is.

Despite its obvious outcome, the historical thriller, written by Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) and Nathan Alexander, runs tautly (for one, you wonder how they fail; but a part of you also roots for an alternative reality aka Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards). Claus von Stauffenberg’s (Tom Cruise) bold yet brilliant plan to assassinate Adolf Hitler and arrest key SS officers using Hitler’s own Operation Valkyrie National Emergency Plan—effectively taking control of the country—required unmitigated commitment and precise action by his associate plotters. His associates included a prestigious inner circle of Nazi officers such as General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh), Colonel General Ludwig Beck (Terence Stamp), General Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy), Dr. Carl Goerdeler (McNally), Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben (Schofield), and General Friedrich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson). Wikipedia gives a good in-depth summary of the real events of the July 20th coup attempt, faithfully rendered in the movie.

Many reviewers of Valkyrie focused on whether Tom Cruise redeemed himself in this “well-crafted thinking person’s action movie” (Rotten Tomatoes) at the expense of the significance of the movie’s content. For instance, Kam Williams of NewsBlaze pretty much dismissed the film as “an interminable costume drama strictly for Tom Cruise fans or World War II buffs.” I don’t think he got it. His review incited several comments including this one by Wayne B., who replied with, “Nonsense. The rest of the country is out making cartoons about toy robots, vampires and car chases and Tom Cruise is making a movie about history. We don’t learn much from the majority of movies out there, but Valkyrie takes us inside the terror of Nazi Germany and shows us the history of some real heroes most of us never think of [or even know of, I would add]. Valkyrie was an amazing glimpse into history that matters and unfortunately most of us are too busy trying to be entertained than to actually learn anything.”

And what we learned was this: there was an active German resistance to Hitler’s brutality, intolerance and racial hatred. Many opposed his evil mania for eugenics and the creation of a super-race of “normal” Aryan heterosexuals. This, despite the horrible shadow cast by the Hitler Youth, Gestapo, and the SS to maintain national order. People were shot or disappeared for just thinking wrong thoughts or worse yet for someone else thinking they did or just being what they were. Those caught actively resisting the Third Reich were imprisoned, tortured and executed. Active resistance spanned from acts of sabotage to publicly denouncing actions of the regime to assassination attempts. Between 1933 and 1945 more than 3.5 million Germans had been interred in concentration camps or prison for political reasons. An estimated 77,000 Germans were killed by Special Courts, courts martial, and the civil justice system for subversion and conspiracy against the Nazi regime. Many had served in government, the military, or in civil positions.

The German Resistance was not a united organized movement so much as a common sentiment shared by many disparate and isolated individuals and loose groups. Resistance comprised of opposition by underground political and ideological networks like the banned Social Democrats (SPD) and Communists (KPD); public protest of Catholic and Protestant clergy against mistreatment of minorities (e.g., the T4 euthanasia program, deportation of Jews, Kristallnacht and other atrocities); and perhaps the most heroic—resistance of individual Germans who acted on their own moral principles, at risk of death, to evade serving in the Nazi regime (e.g., military or Hitler Youth), and to defy or subvert government policies. This included helping Jews survive the Nazi Holocaust by hiding them, obtaining papers for them, etc.; spreading news about and protest material against Nazi atrocities; and other forms of passive resistance. The stories of brave women and men who resisted are many.

Elisabeth von Thadden, a private girls' school principal, disregarded official edicts and continued to enroll Jewish girls at her school until May 1941 when the school was nationalized and she was dismissed (she was executed in 1944, following the Frau Solf Tea Party).

A Berlin Protestant Minister, Heinrich Grüber, organised the smuggling of Jews to the Netherlands. Many of us know about Schindler’s act of altruism from the movie, Schindler’s List, starring Liam Neeson.

Many Germans rallied against the program of so-called “euthanasia” – in fact a campaign of mass murder – directed at people with mental illness and/or severe physical disabilities started in 1939 under the code name T4. By 1941 more than 70,000 people had been killed under this program, many by gassing, and their bodies incinerated.

The "White Rose" was a Munich-based student resistance, formed in 1941 in response to a sermon by August von Galen the archbishop of Munster and to claims that the Nazis were killing undesirables and calling the practice euthanasia. They published radical leaflets rejecting fascism and militarism, and called for justice. Six members of the White Rose were executed on February 22, 1943.

Catholic Bishop of Münster in Westphalia, Clemens August Graf von Galen publicly denounced the “euthanasia” program in a sermon, and telegrammed his text to Hitler, calling on “the Führer to defend the people against the Gestapo.” Kiel Professor Hans Gerhard Creutzfeldt saved most of his patients from death through Action T4 ; he "re-diagnosed" them so that they no longer met the T4 criteria, although this ran the risk of exposure when the Nazi zealots from Berlin conducted inspections. After the Kristallnacht (the first organized Nazi pogrom in Germany), German Catholic priest, Fr. Bernhard Lichtenberg prayed publicly for Jews at Evening prayer. He and Michael Cardinal von Faulhaber of Munich also protested against the T4 “euthanasia” program.

On August 9, 1943 Franz Jägerstätter was beheaded by the Nazis for refusing to fight for them. It was the very same day (though not the same year) that Edith Stein was brutally gassed (along with hundreds of other Jews) in Auschwitz. Both were canonized as Saints by the Catholic Church (though much later).

I only recently learned that over forty-two separate plots to kill Hitler were identified by German historians. Hitler’s would-be-assassins ranged from “simple craftsmen to high-ranking soldiers, from the apolitical to the ideologically obsessed, and from enemy agents to his closest associates,” wrote British historian Roger Moorhouse in his 2007 book Killing Hitler, who went on to observe that “inexplicably, few of these men are known beyond the narrow confines of academic history…Their greatest failing was that they were unable to carry out their allotted task—that of ridding the world of Adolf Hitler—but they nonetheless deserve greater recognition.”

Among those who tried but failed to stop the madness of a brutal dictator were:
Swiss university student Maurice Bavaud, whose three easily thwarted tries in November 1938 to shoot Hitler got him guillotined. Johann Georg Elser, a Swabian carpenter who tried to kill Hitler with a bomb on November 8, 1039 (the Nazi leader left the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich only 13 minutes before detonation). Elser died in the Dachau concentration camp.

Claus von Stauffenberg and other high officials of the German Military attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler inside his "Wolf's Lair" field headquarters near Rastenburg, East Prussia on July 20, 1944. The plot was the culmination of the efforts of the German Resistance to overthrow the Nazi regime. The failure of both the assassination and the military coup d'état which was planned to follow it led to the arrest of at least 7,000 people by the Gestapo According to records of the Führer Conferences on Naval Affairs, 4,980 people were executed, resulting in the destruction of the resistance movement in Germany (Wikipedia).

When Singer began filming Valkyrie in 2008, Germans were initially reluctant to cooperate due to Cruise’s practice of Scientology (viewed with suspicion in the country). When they were convinced of the film’s serious intent, they whole-heartedly supported the film to spread global awareness of von Stauffenberg’s plot and his fellow officers’ heroics.

"It has always aggrieved me,” said Frank Schirrmacher in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany “that it's nearly impossible to make people in foreign countries aware of the fact that in Germany there were also people who risked their lives to oppose the Nazi order. … With his decision to lend Graf von Stauffenberg a face, Tom Cruise will change the image that the world has of us Germans.”

Bryan Singer gained permission to film at Bendlerblock, the building in Berlin that served as the seat of the Reichswehr command and Ministry of Defence—and, under the leadership of Infantry General Friedrich Olbricht, was the focus of military resistance to the Nazi regime. It was in its courtyard that a firing squad assembled the night of July 20, 1944 and executed Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, First Lieutenant Werner von Haeften, General Friedrich Olbricht, and Colonel Albrecht Ritter Mertz von Quirnheim. Just as Stauffenberg was about to be shot, he raised his head high and shouted, “Long live sacred Germany!”

In the courtyard of the Bendlerblock, south of the Tiergarten in western Berlin, stands a statue of a naked man and a plaque where the July 20th plotters were shot: a memorial to the entire German Resistance (Deutscher Widerstand) that reads: “You did not bear the shame. You resisted, sacrificing your life for freedom, justice and honor.” According to archives documenting anti-Nazi resistance in Austria, German military courts condemned over 70,000 people to death, two thirds of whom were members of its own forces.

Nature produces many heroes; those among us who willingly (whether hard-wired, subconsciously or consciously) sacrifice something for the benefit of our world. This does not necessarily mean our lives either; but something we usually value that belongs to us or resides in us. Anything from giving away what little wealth one has to compromising one’s position in society; anything from risking one’s health or security to incurring the ridicule or wrath of one’s cherished community for adhering to a principle or personal truth or defending an outsider. To be a hero is to stand out and make oneself a target. Like the Vervet monkey crier. Real heroism, like real altruism, isn’t often recognized or valued for its true virtue. We all recognize the Hollywood stereotype, the Die Hard types that blow up a city to save a world. But who recognizes the quiet heroism of Louis, the young school kid who refuses to join in with his friends to bully and ridicule René for smelling funny because she has poor hygiene and rotten hand-me-down clothes?

Christmas is a time to celebrate the wisdom of the child (and the child in us all). Children are often surprisingly resilient about the deeper ills of the world; they often show a simpler, more healthy perspective on humanity that supersedes arbitrary and shallow prejudices, demonstrating an inner wisdom many of us "forget" as we grow older and distracted by the trappings of peer pressure and consumerism. Christmas is ultimately a time to celebrate and strive for innocence and childlike virtues such as faith, optimism, courage, enthusiasm, cheerfulness and the simple joy of being. It is a time of tolerance and acceptance; a time of forgiveness, of healing and reconciliation. A time to set aside our differences and fears and embrace our humanity, foibles and all. A time to walk deep into one’s soul and find one’s inner calling, one’s gift to the world. It is a time surely for giving. A time of service and love.

Victor Frankl, who survived Auschwitz and lost virtually his whole family in Nazi concentration camps, wrote that he had finally grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: “The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world may still know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when a man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.”

So, today, when Christians all over the world (myself included) are celebrating the birth of the child-gift, our savior Jesus Christ, I dedicate my gratitude to the heroic men and women who gave their lives to save us from the violence of prejudice, racist hatred and genocide such as The Final Solution. I give thanks to their noble spirit, altruism and bravery to speak out and act selflessly for a noble cause. Every one I list below was a light in the darkness; each one gave his or her life to make a better world for you and me. Each one acted in the spirit of Jesus Christ. Each one acted out of selfless love with hope and faith for a better world, a better humanity. Many were executed in the Third Reich's Volksgerichtshof or thrown into concentration camps. There are many many more, I know. But these are some notable ones I found:

• Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, the Kreisau Circle and the Abwehr
• Peter Graf Yorck von Wartenburg
• Adam von Trott zu Solz
• Otto Carl Kiep
• Lieutenant Colonel Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg
• General Henning von Tresckow
• General Helmuth Stieff
• Colonel Hans Oster
• Admiral Wilhelm Canaris
• Colonel General Ludwig Beck
• General Friedrich Olbricht
• First Lieutenant Werner von Haeften
• General Erich Fellgiebel
• Abwehr Colonel Albrecht Mertz von Quirnheim
• Edith Stein
• Franz Jägerstätter
• Richard Kuenzer
• Walter Cramer
• Professor Alfred Delp
• Hans von Dohnanyi
• Albrecht von Bernstorff
• Klaus Bonhoeffer
• Georg Elser
• Helmuth Hübener. At age 17, he was the youngest opponent of the Third Reich to be executed.
• Members of the White Rose resistance movement: Sophie Scholl, Hans Scholl, Alex Schmorell, Willi Graf, Christoph Probst, and Kurt Huber.
• Julius Fučík.
• Karlrobert Kreiten
• Max Josef Metzger
• Erwin von Witzleben
• Johanna "Hanna" Kirchner
• Lieutenant-Colonel Caesar von Hofacker
• Carl Friedrich Goerdeler
• Elisabeth von Thadden, and other members of the anti-Nazi Solf Circle.
• Julius Leber
• Klaus Bonhoeffer and Rüdiger Schleicher


Be at Peace. See light in darkness. Spread Hope. Create Joy and Celebrate the Wonder of Christmas.

“The Word was the source of life, and this life brought light to people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.” –John 1.4-5 (GNT).


"He has shown you … what is good; and what does the LORD require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God."

Photos:
1. cast of Bryan Singer's 2008 film Valkyrie
2. Claus von Stauffenberg
3. Tom Cruise as Stauffenberg in Valkyrie
4. Friedrich Olbricht
5. Erwin Witzleben
6. Henning von Tresckow
7. Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen
8. Franz Jagerstatter
9. Bernhard Lichtenberg
10. The Bendlerblock courtyard where Stauffenberg and other were shot
11. The Valkyrie of Norse Legend
12. Victor Frankl

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Christmas Yoga with Toulouse


While Nina is busy preparing for Christmas (probably eating and drinking herself silly), I thought I’d provide a public service to those of you indulging in the holiday festivities. Here is my 8-pose Christmas Yoga Exercise to help you gear up for all that Christmas cheer. It’s just the thing for a body bloated on Christmas pudding, turkey and baking.

Did you know that the word yoga means “union”? Yoga creates harmony by controlling your breath and holding your body in steady poses called “asanas”. Five key elements include proper breathing, proper exercise, proper relaxation, proper diet, and positive thinking and meditation. Yoga should be supervised by a qualified teacher. Don’t worry. That’s me.

So, first off, choose a pleasant, peaceful and spacious setting for your exercises. You might like to turn the lights down and light some candles and put on your favorite Christmas music (so long as it isn’t “I am Santa Claus” by Bob Rivers or “Takin’ Care of Christmas” by Randy Bachman). You can use a mat for extra comfort and give yourself lots of room. Then you need to do some stretching exercises …

The purpose of the Headstand is to rest the heart, which usually has to work against gravity and will likely do some extra laps this Christmas with all the cholesterol coursing through you from figgy pudding, turkey stuffing and eggnog. Some people think headstands heal everything. Well, it sure gives you a different perspective on things! And that’s gotta be good for you.

The Dolphin pose strengthens the arms and shoulders. It kind of prepares you for the headstand. I’m doing a great job, aren’t I?

The Plough pose increases overall flexibility, but it’s particularly effective for relieving tension in the upper back and shoulders; especially after you’ve been with the relatives for over two days. This pose is particularly easy for cats like me. Don't worry if you can't do it right away. Do more stretching excercises like the ones I show below.

Below is the Cobra, one of my favorite positions. It does tons of good things like toning and strengthening the superficial and deep muscles of the back and abdominal regions. It also increases backward bending flexibility—something a cat like me does lots—and it relieves tension, especially in the lower back. Good for after you’ve been shoveling the driveway…

The Locust is a backward bending exercise that increases flexibility of the upper back and strengthens the lower back muscles. Holding the pose also massages the internal organs and makes them frisky—which you will be too; good for combating the “big meal” doldrums.

The Camel pose I’m doing below…well, I might have gotten carried away… lets you exercise all your back muscles and extends your spinal column by bending your back fully. It’s useful for increasing spinal and hip flexibility.
Here I am doing the Spinal Twist, which stretches the spine and helps the vertebrae regain their mobility. The roots of the spinal nerves and the nervous system get toned and provided with increased blood supply--something they'll need after all that drinking...Hmm, I'll have to show Nina this pose...

You need a lot of strength, flexibility and concentration to do the Peacock, below. As you can see, I have a lot of it! When the pose is held, your elbows press into the abdominal region, drawing fresh blood to the area and nourishing your internal organs; something they'll appreciate after all the chips and dip you've filled them with.

There's never too much stretching to be done (something I must confess a penchant for), so here are a two stretches I recommend. Because they compliment one another you should do them both... You can do them anywhere and anytime, like at the bus stop, but I suggest not doing them in the car while you're driving. I call them the "Inny" and "Outy" stretches. If you do them on the dance floor I call them the "John Travolta" stretches.

*****
Last but certainly not least, is the Final Relaxation, below, my favorite part. And I do it well, as you can see… Relaxation is important because it leaves you with a calm mind and relaxed muscles. It allows the body to absorb the energy released by the asanas. You need to relax this way for at least five minutes. I’m so good at it that I do it for … well, hours.

On behalf of Nina and I we wish you a safe, healthy, joyous and meaningful “giving season”.

Merry Christmas, everyone!
For more adventures with Toulouse, check out his very own blog, Toulouse LeTrek, the COOL Travel Cat! :-3




Monday, December 7, 2009

The Western Woman Will Save the World...


On the eve of the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, in which we could especially use some feminine wisdom, I thought it appropriate to discuss a quote I was reminded of recently from a self-professed social entrepreneur I met in Chester, Nova Scotia (more on her in a later post).

"The world will be saved by the western woman," said the Dalai Lama during the September 2009 Vancouver Peace Summit.

The Blogosphere and Twitter have since been buzzing (or is that tweeting?) with what His Holiness meant and—perhaps more importantly—how his statement resonates with us, and his “call” affects the western woman.

Marianne Hughes, executive director of the Interaction Institute for Social Change (IISC), pondered the idea of the aging women as hag (originally a representation of feminine power) and how it relates to the Dalai Lama's statement on her blog. “I'm not entirely sure what [the Dalai Lama] meant,” said Hughes, “But I am wondering if when he travels across the globe and sees so many of our sisters impoverished and repressed he sees western women of all ages in a position to speak out for justice and to take on the responsibilities of “the hag”... to take loving care of the planet and its people.”
The original meaning of the word “hag” in Gaelic originally referred to a saint

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Ugg Boots for Christmas!


Ugg Boots are a fashionable and comfy boot made out of sheepskin and worn by men and women ... and celebrities. Oh, and they’re very cute! So, when Sarah at Whooga Boots (Australian owned and operated) approached me to talk about them, I was happy to. In fact, Whooga Boots is the first product line to be featured and appear in my new listing for “Eco-Friendly” products (see sidebar). For instance, Whooga Ugg Boots are made with merino sheepskin, which has a finer grade of fibres for a superior comfort and feel. Whooga assures me that they use a chrome-free tanning method, which is less harsh on the environment and, along with the benefits of being biodegradable and recyclable, are easier on people with sensitive skin. Their packaging is also 100% recyclable.

Did you know that Ugg Boots are natural insulators? “Natural sheepskin is the most thermostatic material in the world, capable of warming your feet in temperatures well below freezing,” says Whooga. Ugg Boots constantly circulate air and keep your feet at a comfortable 22 degrees (Centigrade, that is). Whooga’s thicker sheepskin offers greater insulation, comfort and strength. They hand stitch each pair too!

Did you also know that Ugg Boots can improve the health of your feet? The ThermoFleece sheepskin contains lanolin, which acts as a natural moisturizer and promotes blood circulation. Bonus.

Also, did you know that Ugg Boots are excellent footwear for both winter and summer? This is because of the air-conditioning properties of the boot’s sheepskin; it works both ways—heating your foot in the winter and cooling it in the summer.

Sarah-Jean Ballard of “The Fashionable” discusses the “fashion sense” of Uggs far better than I can, so I turn it over to her:

Fashion Sense Tips:
1. Buy Uggs in neutral colors, such as chestnut or brown. That way, you can easily wear them with any outfit. Makes sense to me too. Hot pink just doesn’t go with my jeans… or does it?
2. Wear Uggs with shorts. They usually look the best with jean shorts that are above the knee but you could experiment with different kind of shorts, such as unique patterns, bright colors, or maybe different kind of materials. Ok… I have my shorts; now where are my Uggs?
3. Tuck your jeans into your boots. A very cute “wintery” outfit is to wear jeans tucked into Uggs with a light or dark colored shirt (like white or red), along with a woolen jacket, scarf, or hat. Hmmm…..I like that.
4. Wear it with skirts too! Uggs look great with almost any skirt that is above the knee and in some cases, below the knee, but above the ankle. It really depends on what color ugg boots you have. Obviously, says Sarah-Jean “you should not wear a lime green skirt with purple uggs.” Obviously…(ugh)…
5. Try wearing them with more of a wide-legged jean. roll the jean up a little bit and put it over the boot. Works!

Cool Things to Know:
• The benefit of wearing Ugg Boots is that you don’t need to wear socks with them, even in cold weather as they are warm inside. However, wearing socks prevents damage to the fur inside the shoe. Then again, wearing thicker socks (ones designed for hiking, skiing, or general winter wear) may damage the insides of your Uggs.
• When wearing Uggs with a skirt in colder seasons try pairing them with knee socks with a pretty design along the top.

Things to Think About:
• Avoid wearing Uggs in muddy or wet conditions. Although ugg boots are naturally water resistant, the leathers are slightly porous. Treating them with scotch guard and other leather water repellents can help
• Never put Ugg boots in the washing machine, as this can damage them
• Ugg boots can smell if they’re not left to dry properly after being wet (ugh!)
• Because the scent of leather is appealing to animals, certain dogs particularly, watch out where you leave your uggs. Whooga reports that they often receive enquiries asking to buy a single ugg boot because a pet destroyed one! (Look out, Anne!)
• Some guys hate seeing Ugg boots on their girlfriends
• Some girls hate seeing Ugg boots on their boyfriends

Whooga told me they have a special offer for “The Alien Next Door” readers (that’s YOU). You get a $20 credit on any purchase at Whooga if you enter “86sfgirl” into the gift card section of their website. Whooga ships worldwide to all countries.
Hmmm...just in time for Christmas, I’m thinking.