Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Serendipity—It’s Not Just a Coincidence

Horace Walpole, the word coiner.


It is the birthday of one of the most useful and beautiful words in the English Language—serendipity.  It is not often that we know the exact date a word was coined—and who is responsible.  But thanks to the quaint 18th Century custom of keeping letter books or tying up one’s correspondence with nice—and expensive—silk ribbon, etymologist have this one nailed down.
On January 28, 1754 Horace Walpole, a/k/a the Earl of Orford took up his quill to write to his friend Sir Horace Mann, Horace evidently being a more popular name back then than it is today. Walpole was a noted English art historian, man of letters, antiquarian and Whig politician who happened to be the son of the very first English Prime Minister, Robert Walpole.    Mann was a scholarly gentleman and sometime diplomat who was a long time resident of Florence, Italy who kept a legendary open house there for the English gentry touring the Continent.  The two Horaces kept a correspondence for more than 40 which was published in 1833 and widely read among the literary set.  Mann was no direct relation to the later American Transcendentalist, social reformer, and educator of the same name but the Yankee was named in his honor. 

The Three Princes of Serendip from an old Persian manuscript..


In his letter to Mann, Walpole boasted about creating a new word after reading a Persian fairytale called The Three Princes of Serendip in which said princes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”  Yeah, Walpole was the kind of guy who passed his time reading Persian fairytales, quite likely in some dead language.  The creation story of the word is practically its definition.
Serendip, it turns out was a translation into Persian from Sanskrit, and Tamil before that for Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka.  The Tamil, dark skinned Hindu people, ruled much of the island divided with the lighter skinned Indian Kings of Kerala.  The story was very old and is thought by some to be the inspiration of the Magi described in the nativity story.
All very well and good, you say, but just what the hell does serendipity mean anyway?
It is part chance, part coincidence, part happy accident.  But more than that, it is the recognition of or creation of unexpected benefits from a seeming random event by someone sagacious enough to make the connection.
This movie may not have fully understood the concept.
The term is often applied to scientific discovery or invention.  Think of something as grand as Alexander Fleming’s accidental discovery of penicillin in 1928 or as trivial as the development of Silly Putty from a failed attempt at creating synthetic rubber.
Writers and artists of various kinds also have similar experiences and make the connections described as “finding bridges where others find holes.”  This experience is related to, but not identical with the concept of an epiphany.
Serendipity is so fun to say that it has entered popular use where, however, the sagacious transformation of a pleasant surprise is often missing.  In these uses it is reduced to mere luck.
In fact the meaning of the word is so nuanced that a British translation service placed it on a list of the ten English words hardest to translate into other languages.  Its scientific applications, however have introduced it into many languages, even French where the defenders of linguistic purity at the Académie française try their damnedest to stomp it out.
 


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Seventy Years Ago Today—A Grim Discovery by the Red Army

Soviet troops discovered a few children among those left behind by the Germans.


Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day.  It will be observed—celebrated is certainly the wrong word here—in ways big and small, significant and trivial in many places across the world.  The commemoration comes on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps in Poland by the advancing Red Army on January 27, 1945.  American, British, Canadian, and other Allied Forces liberated other camps, but Auschwitz was the pinnacle of efficiency for the Nazi industrialization of mass murder.
On the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation the United Nations General Assembly held a special commemorative session.  The following November the General Assembly created the commemoration day, which was first observed in 2006.
In November of 1944 as the Red Army advanced from the East and the Allies pressed on the Western Front, SS Chief Heinrich Himmler ordered the beginning to the elimination of evidence of death camps in Poland.   Gassing operations were suspended and crematoria at Auschwitz were ordered destroyed or, in one case, converted into a bomb shelter.  As things got worse, Himmler ordered the evacuation of the camps in early January directing that “not a single prisoner from the concentration camps falls alive into the hands of the enemy.”
On January 17, 58,000 Auschwitz detainees were set on death march on west towards Wodzisław Śląski. Approximately 20,000 Auschwitz prisoners made it to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, where they were liberated by the British in April 1945.
But that left over 8,000 of the weakest and sickest abandoned behind with scant supplies.  The Red Army 322nd Rifle Division arrived 10 days later to find 7,500 barely alive and 600 corpses lying where ever they finally collapsed.  They also found much evidence of the greater crimes Himmler had hoped to hide—370,000 men’s suits, 837,000 women’s garments, and 7.7 tons of human hair.

 
In a women's baracks many survivors were too weak to stand.

Coming in the midst of the Yalta Conference and other war news, the liberation received scant news attention at the time.  And the Soviets, who were at best ambivalent at the highest levels about what to do with the liberated Jews, did little to publicly celebrate their role in the liberation, at least at first.
It was only after survivors reached the West and eventually Israel as refugees, that Auschwitz emerged as a special, horrific symbol of the whole Holocaust.

Camp survivor Mordechai Ronen was overcome with emotion as he arrived to take part in liberation anniversary ceremonies at Auschwitz this week.


Today with anti-Semitism on the rise across Europe 300 camp survivors and world leaders and dignitaries including German President Joachim Gauck, French President Francois Hollande, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, will join host President Bronisław Komorowski of Poland.  Ten years ago 1,600 survivors make the journey, but age has dramatically thinned their ranks.
The European press is abuzz with who is not attending.  Notable for his absence is Russian President Vladimir Putin who was prominent among the dignitaries a decade ago.  In a pointed snub, the Polish government did not send him an official diplomatic invitation to attend despite the role of Soviet forces in the liberation of the vast camp.   The Poles are close allies of the Ukraine, which came close to full scale war with Russia over the breakaway Crimea and broad swaths of its east last year.   The Russian leader will send his chief of staff to head his nation’s delegation. 
The Russians deflect criticism of Putin’s absence by reminding the world of the Ukrainian history of collaboration with the Nazis including volunteer units that served as SS camp guards and on-going anti-Semitism.   The Ukraine’s sizable Neo-Nazi movement has played a role in the ongoing crisis there and fielded militia units battling pro-Russian separatists in the virtual civil war in the east.
Also notable for their absence are both President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.  Ten years ago Vice President Dick Cheney represented George W. Bush.   Obama who was scheduled to be abroad on his long-scheduled trip to India had not been officially expected, but many speculated about a “surprise appearance.”  Instead, the President cut his successful Indian trip short to fly to Saudi Arabia to offer his condolences on the death of King Abdullah and shore up relations with this key Middle Eastern ally.
But amid the controversy of surrounding the invitation by House Speaker John Boehner to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to a joint session of Congress without even informing the administration and a general tense relationship with the Likud led government over continued settlement building in Jerusalem and the West Bank, much is being read into Obama and Biden’s no show.  Biden’s schedule is not known to be crammed with high level commitments.  The United States will be represented by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, hardly a house hold name in either this country or Europe.
Meanwhile Israeli President is stuck in New York City where he had been scheduled to address a special United Nations Remembrance Day which has been cancelled due to the epic blizzard paralyzing the city.