Susan Dworkin

Author, Playwright, Lecturer, Social Historian

This is the blog of Susan Dworkin, author, playwright, environmental advocate, feminist, grandmother, songwriter and audiobook producer, all of whose attempts at retirement have failed.

Think of Climate Change as World War III

October 1, 2014

Tags: People's Climate March, Clean Energy, The Commons

Watching the wonderful Climate March in New York last Sunday, one felt battered by companion storms of hope and fear. Hope that with so many young people on board, we could turn the tide. Fear that with so many politicians owned by iron-hearted corporations, the movement to save the earth would founder.

For comfort, consult history. And think of the struggle against climate change as the Third World War.

During the Second World War, patriotic American car companies turned from automotive production to war production in 5 years. General Motors stopped making auto bodies and churned out Sherman tanks. Chevy plants rolled out aircraft engines. The Midwestern grain colossus, Cargill, produced warships. Sure they came out of the war controlling what President Eisenhower called a huge, dangerous "military industrial complex." Sure they made fortunes. But they always make fortunes. And without corporate muscle, the war would never have been won.

Fast forward to now.

Imagine if the leaders of today's energy giants could see that our nation is fighting a monstrous enemy bent on our destruction, that the enemy is earth-heating carbon, that they have a patriotic duty to abandon fossil fuels and turn their vast power to developing solar, wind, hydrogen batteries. Imagine if we could somehow plug into that elusive reservoir of patriotism and instigate a change of heart. Then we might actually have a shot at winning the Third World War.

THE COMMONS, my new novel, fast forwards to the 22nd century, when corporate domination of research and innovation is so complete that one company has literally become the government. And the fate of the nation still depends on one corporate leader changing his heart and behaving like a patriot.

The Miraculous Ascent of THE NAZI OFFICER’S WIFE

May 2, 2014

Tags: The Nazi Officer's Wife, Edith Hahn Beer, Best Sellers Lists

It has been almost 15 years since THE NAZI OFFICER’S WIFE was first published. Six weeks ago, in an amazing leap forward, it took up residence on The New York Times E-Book and the Combined Print & E-Book Nonfiction Best Sellers lists.

The memoir has ranked Number 1 in multiple categories on Amazon, including History of Religion, History of Judaism, Women and the Holocaust. And it has spent 2 full months on Amazon’s list of the top 100 Best Sellers in Kindle eBooks. As of May 2, it’s Number 75 -- (GAME OF THRONES is Number 74)!

How come this memoir of escape from the Holocaust, which I wrote with the woman who lived it, the late Edith Hahn Beer, suddenly became a best seller? A miracle of book marketing, say the experts. Maybe. But in my heart of hearts, I know that it is also because of our fascination, in these dangerous times, with survival. More and more, we ask ourselves what it will take to live through calamity, natural or man-made.

Edith was a well-educated Jewish woman from Vienna, soon to earn her law degree, when the Nazis came to power. In a remarkably short time, she entered poverty and bondage, conscripted as a slave laborer to work in some farmer’s fields. “Everybody got something,” she used to say of those ordinary citizens who agreed to be led by the new regime. An apartment, a piano, a business, a better job, a bill that would never have to be paid, all suddenly abandoned by former friends and neighbors who had “mysteriously” disappeared.

Edith lived through the war as a “U-Boat”, a Jew masquerading as an Aryan and hiding in plain sight. She pretended to be an uneducated country girl. Worked as a nurse’s aide, cleaning bed pans. Kept her head down and her voice timid and soft. After the war, if something frightened her – say, an argument or a sudden loud sound – that “little mouse voice” instantly would come back.

She never credited herself with her escape. She did acknowledge that she was always terrified, always. That the dumbness of luck kept her from being murdered as her mother and her friends were murdered. That five people helped to save her. A former student who gave Edith her papers and her identity and who is now commemorated among the Righteous Gentiles at Yad V’Shem in Israel. An acquaintance who fed her when she was starving. A factory worker who taught her how to make the quota. A German officer, soon to be dead in North Africa, who taught her how to play the ration system. A young Nazi Party member named Werner who fell in love with Edith and married her and hid her identity, even though discovery would have cost them both their lives.

When we were working on the book, drinking tea at her apartment in Netanya, Israel, Edith commented: “I think sometimes, if every Jew had five people who helped them, there might have been no Holocaust.”

So there’s the real miracle: five people in a nation insane with hate who reached out to help. They were the keys to Edith’s continued existence. To my mind, they are the ones who put THE NAZI OFFICER’S WIFE on the best sellers lists because they are the ones who showed us a way to survive with our humanity intact. Certainly useful information.

NEEDED: AN EMPATHETIC COALITION OF FARMERS, SCIENTISTS AND CONSUMERS

February 28, 2014

Tags: GM, genetic modification, wheat breeding, hunger, farmers, consumers, plant science, industrial agriculture

More than 17 million farmers now plant GM crops on 420 million acres worldwide.
It’s tempting to believe that some giant corporation like Monsanto has intimidated all these people into planting seed imbued with corporate-owned genes that help plants resist bugs and herbicides. “Mother M” has a fearsome reputation for patrolling the fields with patent lawyers, using its vast economic power to bend the countryside to its will. (When I set out to write about the great seed banker, Dr. Bent Skovmand, I was warned by folks up and down the food chain not to dare to cross Monsanto.)

However, for large numbers of farmers growing cotton, corn, soybeans and sugar beets, corporate GM seed provides a healthy bottom line. And they gladly purchase it from Monsanto or Syngenta or Dow or the German chemical colossus BASF or some other corporation, no intimidation required.

Then there are the scientists. Virtually every plant scientist I met in the course of writing THE VIKING IN THE WHEAT FIELD believes that GM techniques can help us breed new crops to feed a world that is being transformed for the worse by climate change.

So where does that leave the thoughtful consumer, who fears that genetic modification tinkers dangerously with nature’s rules and wants GM products to be labeled if not eliminated.?

The gulf between these three players – farmers, scientists, consumers -- helps keep corporate power supreme in agriculture, threatening to give us what Dr. Skovmand predicted: a situation where “a few companies control the seed supply of the whole world.”

To close the gulf, we thoughtful consumers should sharpen the pencil of empathy. We must reach out and listen to farmers and scientists; it’s the price of getting them to listen to us. Only when we arm ourselves with a realistic understanding of the other guy’s self-interest can we begin to form the political coalition of consumers, farmers and scientists that will slow down the industrialization of agriculture and reestablish farming as a public good.



LOOKING FOR BELTSVILLE

February 28, 2014

Tags: Agriculture, Plant Biology, Genetic Modification (GM), GM Foods, Biotechnology, USDA, ARS/USDA

One day long ago, my boss at the United States Department of Agriculture sent me to visit Beltsville, the agricultural experiment station in Maryland. I was a New Yorker, a suburbanite, had never visited a farm, and the only reason (more…)

As a Driven Leaf: Why Has a Great Classic Novel Remained So Contemporary?

February 3, 2014

Tags: As a Driven Leaf, Milton Steinberg, audiobook, George Guidall, Melissa Wolff

When I was producing audiobooks of great Jewish fiction, I went to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York to get some advice from the literature department. A professor there told me that important Jewish novels often dealt with “the eternal challenge of that great Greek sea.” He was using the Aegean as a metaphor for the tempting glories of other cultures, materialism, physicality, art, music, all the pathways (more…)

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