Children farming the land… JFK… Eric Hobsbawm/“Francis Newton”… the world wars…


Children Farming the Land

The tobacco field is no place for a child! [Gabriel Thompson, “Leaves of Poison,” Dec. 2, 2013] I grew up in south Georgia, where summer consisted of cropping tobacco. A harvester, with a crew of twelve or thirteen, was pulled through the tobacco fields by a tractor under the relentless south Georgia sun. The cropper cut the leaves by hand and handed them to the stringer, who strung them with cotton twine onto a tobacco stick, taken off by a stick man. Work started around 7 am after the dew—or irrigation—had flooded the leaves, the water from which covered the cropper and stringer. You’d be drenched and freezing all morning.

Come 1 pm, you’d be back in the field, now hot and dry, and as the afternoon wore on, the black, sticky tobacco tar would cover your arms, legs and hair. Soap alone wouldn’t take it off.

Tobacco poisoning was a rite of passage. You’d spend your first day less than hungry and your first night wrapped around a toilet throwing up. Sometimes, big watery blisters would develop on areas where the morning tobacco water and afternoon tobacco tar kept the skin flooded or smothered. The work was wet, hot, sticky and dangerous.

It was no place for a kid.


Farming can be dangerous, but I wouldn’t trade my farming childhood for anything [Mariya Strauss, “Dying on the Farm,” Dec. 2]. I hope and pray that my children can have the kind of life I had. Farming is not a job; it is a way of life. A 15-year-old living in the suburbs is a different animal from the 15-year-old on a farm, who has been working for years. Michael Steele was capable of doing his job at 15. His was a tragic accident, and should be viewed as such—not as a reason to involve the government in family farms.



Thank you so much for reprinting Wendell Berry’s poem “November 26, 1963” [“JFK: ‘The Light of All His Lost Days,’” Dec. 2].

Ann Stokes
west chesterfield, n.h.

Eric Hobsbawm/‘Francis Newton’

It was gratifying that reviewer Ramachandra Guha noted Eric Hobsbawm’s jazz expertise as columnist for the New Statesman under the pseudonym Francis Newton [“The Man Who Knew Almost Everything,” Dec. 2]. These columns plus his reviews for The New York Review of Books are collected in the 1993 revised edition of The Jazz Scene, which carries his real name as author.

The pseudonym was “based on Frankie Newton, the trumpeter,” he tells us in the introduction to the 1989 edition. African-American Frankie Newton (1906–54) was not only one of the (regrettably, too little recognized) jazz greats of the 1930s and ’40s; he was also a politically active foe of racism and a sympathizer with communism. He was on the 1939 Commodore Music label session at which Billie Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit.”

W. Royal Stokes
elkins, w.v.

The World Wars

Tara Zahra’s review “Behind the Storm” [Dec. 2] is very much appreciated by this eyewitness/Zeitzeuge of the mass flight and later expulsion of some 11 million Germans, of whom some 2 million died in the cold winters of 1944, ‘45 and ‘46. It is estimated that some 1 million women—young teens up to women in their 70s—were raped by Soviet soldiers. Some Soviet officers like Kopelev and Solzhenitzyn attempted to interfere, only to be relieved of their positions.

Germans’ fear of the Red Army soldiers was so great that they tried to escape by any means possible, including a voyage across the Baltic Sea; they were torpedoed by Soviet submarines, costing the lives of some 10,000 passengers on the Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945.

I was an East Prussian/German soldier who fought on the so-called Eastern Front from the fall of 1944 until the early months of 1945. Most of my relatives were East or West Prussians. A distant cousin of mine was murdered by a Soviet commissar. He was not a soldier; he was not a Nazi; he was a farmer. He left behind a young wife with three infants. My grandmother, a good Christian, was starved to death in a camp. A friend of the family, a socialist incarcerated in a Nazi concentration camp, was murdered by the “liberating” Soviet Army. He was welcoming the Soviet soldiers with a red flag.

Ending on a positive note: it is remarkable how those millions of refugees/expellees were provided, mostly by West Germans, with shelter, however primitive; with food, however insufficient; with some help from the occupying powers. Eventually these refugees became a significant part of the so-called Wirtschaftswunder (Economic Miracle).

Equally positive are the
developments that led to former enemies—Poles, Russians and Germans—becoming friends. Millions of Jews and other Nazi-dominated people perished in and after World War II. And so did millions of German refugees/expellees. In the end, victors and victims are the losers. Bridge-builders between nations and people are the winners.

Armin E. Mruck
towson, md.

Christopher Clark, one of the authors reviewed by Tara Zahra, has committed a grave omission. I worked with UNRRA in Belgrade at the end of World War II and became a close friend of the widow and daughter of Mihailo Jovanovic, one of the executed Sarajevo assassins.

Clark characterizes the assassins as a group of six scruffy late teenagers and one older man, Danilo Ilic, acting on orders from Belgrade Black Hand operatives. He omits any mention of two older, well-established members who were hanged, along with Ilic, in 1915 for the crime. Those were Mihailo (Misko) Jovanovic and Veljko Cubrilovic. (Austrian law did not allow executions of those under 20 years of age.)

Mihailo was a successful merchant from an established Bosnian Serb family in Tuzla and a member of a nationalist organization called Mlada Bosna (Young Bosnians). The other conspirators who were hanged were in their 20s, one
a newspaper editor and the
other a schoolteacher. None
fit the description of the
assassins given by Clark or Margaret MacMillan. These facts are readily available on the Internet.

Bea Silverberg

Ad Policy