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Alan Turing, “The Imitation Game,” and Joan’s math “skills”

Joan’s diaries end before anyone in the public knew about Bletchley Park in England.

There M16 code breakers attempted — and succeeded — in figuring out German code and winning the war.  Well, that’s one way of interpreting history. Certainly no one can deny the importance of this work.

Alan Turing.  Read more about him in this article from The Guardian.

Alan Turing. Read more about him in this article from The Guardian.

A recent Hollywood movie focuses on Alan Turing, brilliant mathematician.

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Advertisement for “The Imitation Game”

His story is also controversial for his being prosecuted for homosexuality after the war in 1952 (he was pardoned in 2013).  Tragically, two years later in 1954, he committed suicide. Here’s the trailer for the film that examines Turing’s life.


During the war, his work was key for England’s ability to resist the Nazi onslaught.

Cypher work during World War II.

Cypher work during World War II.

You can read this article in The New York Times and view its fascinating slide show with images of Turing’s desk and notes.

Enigma Machine.

Enigma Machine.

Follow the links on this page to read more about the secret history at Bletchley Park.

But that was not the only secret work being done during WWII.  My parents say that on their first date, they visited Jackson Park in Chicago and “played spies.”  But I think Joan would be the first to admit that her spy work–if she had been a spy–would not have involved cypher work.  Math was not her best friend.

At age 14, Joan expresses antagonism towards math.

Monday, November 22, 1937

Geometry is awful!

Phooey to Euclid—(he invented it)

Phooey to Mrs. Uhlir—(she thinks she teaches it)

Phooey to me—(I don’t know it)

Well—Good Night.

A few days later, she continues her lament.

Sunday, November 28, 1937

I came home and said, “Don’t disturb me—I’m going to do Geometry,” and proceeded to read a Conan Doyle[1] book—(not on Geometry). I guess I’ll do the Geometry tomorrow—maybe—I hope, I hope. Well, Geometry we have always with us. .

[1] Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the Sherlock Holmes mysteries.

Doctor Watson and Sherlock Holmes.  Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Alan Turing in "The Imitation Game," also plays Sherlock Holmes in the t.v. series.

Doctor Watson and Sherlock Holmes. Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game,” also plays Sherlock Holmes in the t.v. series. Sherlock.

Geometry just won’t go away.

Now at the elderly age of 15, Joan writes,

Tuesday, January 4, 1938

We’re doing circle theorems in Geometry and Burton, who sits behind me, hums music from Wagner’s operas all through it—it’s very bad for my concentration which isn’t so strong naturally anyhow.

Miracles do happen.

Tuesday, January 25, 1938

Hello! To all awful things there must come an end—test week is over! Hooray! We had a Geometry test yesterday—et[1] surprise (!) I got 94!—which is marvelous for me!!!

[1] Joan often uses Latin for simple words, such as “and” in this sentence.

The math adventures continue.

Wednesday, February 2, 1938

There was the handsomest boy(s) in my Latin class and most of the kids in Geometry are even dimmer than me—goody.

Joan jokes about her math skills — or lack of them — but she’s clearly very bright.

Monday, May 16, 1938

I’ve won the Scholarship for the University of Chicago Jr. College.[1] Am I thrilled! Whoopee!!!!!

University of Chicago Junior College, known as U-High.

University of Chicago Junior College, known as U-High, and today the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.

Today a girl, Shirley Schuerman, asked me to tutor her in Geometry! Whew! Was I surprised! However, she seemed serious and I like her so I said I would. She asked me if I’d start tonight at her house, adding that she had a nice brother (do I look like that kind of girl?). So I went over tonight and we did Geometry for 1½ hours. The brother was in some vague upper portion of the house writing a thesis for a Master’s degree—he’s already completed four yrs at Northwestern—whew! These sweet brothers. I feel awfully inferior. I didn’t see him but I saw his picture—he’s got grey eyes—!! But the main point is that someone asked me to tutor [her] in Geometry! Whoopee!

[1] Now called the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.

The next day, the news about her scholarship hits the school rumor mill.

Tuesday, May 17, 1938

Of course it got around school that I had won it and everyone congratulated me and so forth. But they all seemed so awfully surprised—do I really seem that dumb? And my Geometry teacher, Mrs. Jarvis, heard about it and asked me about it in class. She seemed so dubious about it that I had to laugh. I’m afraid she hasn’t a very good impression of me for she went away shaking her head and saying, “I can’t understand it.” Evidently my Geometry record is not so hot. . . . Mrs. Hellman made me read my letter in class—I blushed so sweetly. . . .

Well, I’m slowly realizing that I’ve won the scholarship! Do I feel queer. All day people were making cracks. You see, I don’t look like the smart type, I’m afraid.

Thankfully, the end of the year comes.

Wednesday, June 15, 1938

When Mrs. Uhlir was bragging about me to the class, she looked at Lorraine who had been standing sorta in background and said, “What are you getting in Geometry?” Lorraine said she was promised an S. Then to me, “And you,” confidently. Oh did I feel terrible when I said G. Of course, I may get an E but G is a surer guess.[1] Anyhow, Mrs. Uhlir looked quite shocked. And the class grinned its head off (query: does a class have a head?).


Joan saying “This is the way to win a scholarship–burn the midnight oil (true) and work (false) like me.” The class says, “Oh!”

[1] The grades seem to have been E (excellent), G (good), and S (satisfactory).

Math doesn’t disappear from her life.  As she writes at age 18,

Friday, October 10, 1941

Hello, well, I should be speaking French to you after a week of that delightful language, but unfortunately (or fortunately) all we’re having is pronunciation. Lord help us all. It’s fun—though—I like all my classes—fairly well though I get rather bored in MVC[1] although it’s an intermediate course.

Phy Sci[2] turns out to be rather unboring so far but I fear I am no genius in math. We have Dean Smith and he’s just swell, you know, but I just don’t know square root!

Germans say Russia is conquered[3] and they appear to be getting on to Moscow.

[1] Methods, Values, and Concepts.

[2] Physical science.

[3] Hitler told Germans on October 3, 1941, that the Russians were vitually defeated.

Fortunately, the Germans were wrong.

Little over a month later, Joan writes,

Thursday, November 13, 1941

. . . Just think, I’ll be 19 in a month, getting old, gramma! I got the highest mark in our last French test—94—but we have another tomorrow so woe be unto me—also highest in Poetry on Milton. I don’t like him—and Mr. Bond had me read my paper aloud. I was quite embarrassed. . . . Passed Math in Phy Sci too—with the lowest C. Was quite happy! Whee! . . . We’re on astronomy now. . . .

So, Joan was not a math whiz like Alan Turing.  But she was an astute and subtle writer.  For which we are all grateful!


“Greater Love Hath No Man Than This” — Part 5 and Conclusion

Five years passed; England had entered the war; her men enlisted; a March offensive was being pushed along the front; several companies were sent out. The drive succeeded, but not a few English “Tommies” lay dying on the field when it was deserted by the victors. Two lay near each other, waiting for the dawn. One was grey-eyed and in the mist of early morning he seemed very pale. The other was blond and blue-eyed and white with pain. The only color to him was a gradually spreading red stain over his chest. They looked at each other and the grey eyed one spoke painfully.

Paul tries to comfort his dying friend in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).

Paul tries to comfort his dying friend in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).

“Hello, fella,” the words shot out, “nice – day, isn’t it.”

“Yes,” said the other, as though his lungs would burst, — “lovely.”

“Oh, you too. I’m sorry; I didn’t know,” replied the other seeing the red stain. “I hope I — we — don’t — uh — go — before dawn. I should hate to – uh – go – without the sun.”

“Yes,” said the other, “so should I. It’s odd you know – like this, I mean. I was going to do so much while I lived – and here I am – dying in this –!” He coughed painfully and could not go on.

The grey-eyed one watched the bright-haired one sympathetically. Then:

“You know, if I live till the sun comes up I’ll be exactly 23 years old. It’s my birthday. Funny – dying on your birthday.”

The bright haired one controlled his coughing and looked with wonder at the other as he groped haltingly for words, “That’s funny. I’ll be 23, too, if I live. I was ….   I was born at dawn. I hope, “– a spasmodic cough — “I live to see….. the sun.”

A few minutes passed. Then:

“You know,” this from the grey-eyed one, “I seem to know you. What’s your name?”

“Charlie,” said the blue-eyed one between coughs.

“Guess I was wrong,” said the other, “I can’t know you. Mine’s Tommy.”

“H’dy’a do, Tommy,” said the bright haired one reaching out a blood-stained hand.

“Very well, thank you, “ said the grey-eyed one, taking it.

Silence then.

Statue honoring American Expeditionary Force in World War I

Statue honoring American Expeditionary Force in World War I.  Here an American doughboy shakes hands with a French soldier.  Read about WWI monuments like this one here.

“D’ya know, now, we’re dying,” gulped the bright-haired one.

“Yes,” said Tommy.

            An interval of a few minutes, then, “Man, look,” cried Tommy, “here comes the sun! Look at ‘er, man. Red as blood!”

“Yes, said Charlie, “red as blood.”

The bloody sun came up through the mist and cast long blue shadows as it looked at the two, lying side by side, even as they had lain twenty three years ago, side by side, the fair-haired and the dark, beneath the same sun. And as they lay, their faces seemed to become the same again, and their countenances were those that had been, and it might have been before, instead of this twenty three years later. And then the mist closed in upon them.

The End

To read earlier parts of this story written by Joan when she was 13 years old, click here for part one, here for part two, here for part three, and here for part four.

“Greater Love Hath No Man Than This” — Part 4

Then again in 1910, a youth lay desperately ill in a London hospital. A call went out for a blood donor and a blond student of eighteen presented himself. A transfusion was made, but when the hospital asked for the donor’s name he said, “Oh, forget about it.” And when they persisted he said, “Oh, just say “Charlie!” The youth, who was ill, recovered but when he asked for his savior’s name they could not tell him. He seemed awed, his grey eyes perplexed as he said, “Golly, he saved my life and I don’t even know his name.   I never even saw him.”

Was it imagination or did the red sun really smile more broadly as it observed his wondering face?


To be continued….

To read earlier parts of this story written by Joan when she was 13 years old, click here for part one, here for part two, and here for part three.

“Greater Love Hath No Man Than This” — Part 3

Ten years later, in 1904, on the same beach the same sun looked down on a bright haired twelve-year-old struggling in the water off the almost deserted beach. Another boy, dark and grey-eyed, came down to the beach for a swim and, seeing the struggling boy, dove in to save a life. As he dragged the boy back to shore, a crowd gathered from seemingly nowhere and watched his progress eagerly. When he finally landed on the beach and pulled the boy ashore, a cheer arose from the throng.

The blond boy, who seemed rather dazed, stood up haltingly and addressed his rescuer. “Thanks a lot – I suppose I should’ve drowned if it weren’t for you. Guess I was out too long. Legs got weak, you know.”  The other boy nodded as if embarrassed and hurriedly disappeared through the crowd. The rescued boy looked after him and said huskily, “Gosh, he saved my life, and I don’t even know his name.”

3970061324_e7d99929f7_mTo be continued….

To read earlier parts of this story written by Joan when she was 13 years old, click here for part one and here for part two.

“Greater Love Hath No Man Than This” — Part 2

Some two years later the same sun looked down upon the popular English summer resort of Breaksford-on-the-sea. Two boy-toddlers — one blue-eyed and blond, the other grey-eyed and dark — met and took hands as young strangers will and wandered hand-in-hand through the shrubbery beyond the beach. They passed through the green brushwood to the tall trees beyond, till the dark one thought of something and spoke, “What’s your name?”

“Charlie,” said the fair-haired boy. “What’s yours?”

“Tommy,” lisped the other and they wandered on through the grass. Then:

“Look at the shiny stick,” said the grey-eyed one who called himself “Tommy.” He picked up a thin, sinuous thing with hard red eyes and a red tongue that shot forth like fire.

“Tha’s not a stick. ‘S a snake. Drop it — ugh — bad thing!” And the other toddler stamped on the harmless looking adder till even its poisonous fangs could do no harm to them or anyone.

The young innocents rejoined hands and toddled back to the beach to be swooped down upon and carried off by their respective parents.


To be continued….

To read part 1 of this story that Joan wrote at age 13, click here.

To read part 3 of this story, click here.



“Greater Love Hath No Man Than This” — Part 1

Joan kept poetry notebook starting in 1932 when she was only 9 years old.  Later, she kept a daily journal and a poetry/creative writing journal.

Joan age 4 with her mother, Neva Wehlen (maiden name:  Levish).

Joan age 4 with her mother, Neva Wehlen.

In honor of the centenary of the 2nd year of World War I–1915–I wanted to begin this year with a short story of Joan’s.  One thing I learned from her WWII diaries was how potent the imagery of WWI was for her generation. She was born late in 1922 and grew up hearing about the “Great War” and seeing countless silent movies honoring that bloody conflagration.  You can read more about such films here.

Here is part 1 of 5 parts of her short story, “Greater Love Hath No Man,” written when she was 13 years old. I will be posting the subsequent parts of the story over the coming weeks.

Autumn 1936

Early on a March morning, two boy babies were laid in cribs at St. Mary’s hospital in London. Being very newly born, there was no noticeable difference between the two and the red sun, peering through the window, thought they looked very much alike, the only difference being that one had grey eyes and the other blue. Otherwise they were both round and pink and very, very small. The babies looked at each other and gurgled as babies will and straightaway fell asleep.

After a while the babies were taken to their respective homes by their respective parents and were duly admired, and christened by the same.

To be continued…..

From the film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921).

From the film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921).

Here is a famous movie from the silent era.  Click here to see The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Read other parts of this story as it continues….

Part Two

Part Three


Diary of Polish Jewish Teenager in WWII: International Holocaust Remembrance Day

On this, the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I would like to commemorate a teenage girl diarist and my grandmother. The girl who wrote the diary was not Anne Frank, but Mary Berg.  She was a Polish Jewish Teenager who survived the  Warsaw Ghetto and told about her experiences in a series of articles published in 1944 after her escape to the U.S.

Mary in New York in 1945.

Mary in New York in 1945.

It was then made into a book the following year (1945) called Warsaw Ghetto.

Original cover of Warsaw Ghetto.

Original cover of Warsaw Ghetto. It is based on images drawn by Mary.

You can read about this remarkable woman in this New York Times article by Jennifer Schuessler.

Artifacts belonging to Ms. Berg were to have been sold in New York in November 2014, but the auction was cancelled after questions were raised by relatives.

Mary Berg in various photos.

Mary Berg in various photos.

Schuessler writes that Ms. Berg was “an Anne Frank before Anne Frank.”

Mary as a girl.

Mary as a girl.

By this she means that Berg’s experiences–as a young girl and teenager–became part of the public record before Anne Frank’s definitive diary — first published in 1952.

Historians have shown concern that such valuable artifacts–photos, writings, and the like–were to have a monetary value placed on them.  As Professor Rachael B. Goldman at the College of New Jersey says, “This could set a tragic precedent of less Holocaust material being put in archives and instead ending up in private hands–including the wrong private hands, I might add.”

Another photo from the Berg estate.

Another photo from the Berg estate. Some of Mary’s friends have armbands identifying them as Jewish.

Mary was able to flee because her mother was an American citizen.  Though the original notebooks do not, so far as anyone knows, survive, her memories and recounting have entered the historical record as valuable first-person accounts.

Apparently, according to the New York Times article, Berg was so traumatized by her experiences that the son of Mary’s sister, Anne, didn’t tell him he was Jewish “until shortly before his mother’s death.”


Mary and sister Ann (or Anna) in the Warsaw Ghetto.

And Berg’s book had never been mentioned. That son, Steven T. Powell, would like the heroism of various members of the family recognized, especially that of his grandmother (Berg’s mother), Lena Wattenberg, who got the family out of Poland.

The story she tells is unique. She even illustrates it.

This illustration by Mary shows how people tried to find food in the courtyard.

This illustration by Mary shows how people tried to find food in the courtyard.

Her diaries were in twelve notebooks, preserved at least until she arrived in the U.S. A journalist, Samuel L. Shneiderman, helped her edit them and translated them into Yiddish where they appeared in an important Yiddish publication over a period of 10 months.

Her eyewitness account shocked readers.  Though she was somewhat privileged with an art dealer father, she records images that horrify: ““Sometimes a child huddles against his mother, thinking that she is asleep and trying to awaken her, while, in fact, she is dead.”

After appearing in German and English language publications, the articles became a book.  The most recent edition can be found here.  Berg didn’t want to be seen as some sort of “hero.”  She found that repugnant. You can read more about her reaction to promoting her story here.

This short student video about her life can be found here.

Diaries are key for understanding the past, since they retell what everyday people experienced.  The diaries of my mother, Joan, end in February 1942.  So she doesn’t relate anything concerning the Holocaust and the extermination of the Jews, Roma, homosexuals, political dissidents, or other people considered undesirable by the Nazis. But her story touches Berg’s in another way beyond that of being teenage diary writers.

My mother’s mother, Neva Levish, was born in the U.S. in 1900.

Joan age 4 with her mother, Neva Wehlen (maiden name:  Levish).

Joan age 4 with her mother, Neva Wehlen (maiden name: Levish).

On her father’s death by suicide in 1902, she and her mother and brother returned to the parents’ home country of the Ukraine.  They returned to the U.S. in 1905.  Until I was in my 20’s, I had no idea my grandmother Neva was Jewish.  She had converted in her teens so I only knew her as a very active Christian who would pay us kids 25 cents to read aloud a chapter from the Bible.  Which of course we did since we wanted the money!

I also had always been told she came from Russia, not the Ukraine.

Ukraine in 1900.

Ukraine in 1900.

Now, borders of countries changed a lot, but still there were a number of things I only found out once I was an adult.  Some I discovered after Joan’s death in her papers.  In addition to her diaries, I found my grandparents’ birth certificates.  I discovered my grandfather’s parents were not yet married when he was born (which must have happened a lot in the countryside of Sweden).  And I discovered the name of my great-grandparents’ home town: Zolotonosha.  Immigrants often kept things secret from the next generation, perhaps out of fear or the desire to assimilate.

Memorial plaque to an event in 1941.  If you can translate this, please let me know!

Memorial plaque to an event in 1941.It concerns incendiaries being released at a distillery. If you can translate this, please let me know!

Diaries always give us a glimpse of the truth.  And for that, we need to be diligent about finding them and making them available to historians and the public.

The following image suggests how my grandmother would have suffered–even died–if she had stayed in her parents’ homeland.

What seems to be a Jewish grave.  If you can translate this, please let me know!

This is a monument in memory of Jews shot in a pogrom in the 1920.  If you can translate this, please let me know!

According to one site, Zolotonosha had 7,714 Jews in 1897, a short time after my great-grandparents had left.  There were 2,769 Jews in the town of Zolotonosha. “Total population of Zolotonosha in 1897 was 8,739. Emigration, pogroms of 1905-1919, destruction of the Civil War, migration to larger cities and outside the Pale, the World War II devastation, and new waves of Jewish emigration followed.”  My great-grandmother was lucky to leave in 1905.  We need to be reminded that Jews were killed before WWII as well as during it.

Listed as Neva Levash, she was a passenger on the Ryndam with the age of 3 (though she would have been at least a year older).  The ship had left Boulogne-Sur-Mer and arrived in New York on July 11, 1905.  As a U.S. citizen (she and her brother had been born in Chicago), there was no problem with her re-entry to the United States with their widowed mother.


The Ryndam which my grandmother, Neva, sailed on in 1905.

The Ryndam which my grandmother, Neva, sailed on in 1905.

As for Mary Berg’s albums, there is good news about what has happened to them.  The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has acquired them. This is crucial for preservation and research.  As Anne Wolfe, Mary’s sister, says in a New York Times article about the museum’s purchase, “There are fewer and fewer people left who remember these events.”  Let us hope journals like these remind people for posterity.


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