LitBirthdays May 1 – 7, 2011

May is

Jewish-American Heritage Month


National Bicycle Month

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Helen Bamber

May 1

Helen Bamber (born May 1, 1925) – U.K. human rights activist; psychotherapist who works with survivors of torture and war

Read about Helen Bamber here and here

Helen Bamber: “The stories told to me in Belsen poured from people like the ferocious process of vomiting rather than the recounting of a story. I began to understand the importance of testimony and the bearing witness that I was forced to personally undertake. The truth was so stark, so naked that the only honourable way to receive it was to be naked too, bereft of all familiar values. I remember sitting on the ground with a woman and as we clung to each other … she continued to tell me of her husband’s death too. If only, she said, and these words were repeated many, many times, if only I had stayed with him I could have saved him. She repeated it over and over again until I realized that she felt, she felt, responsible for his death.”

(from Belsen in History and Memory by Joanne Reilly)

Watch Helen Bamber speak of her experience in a concentration camp after the end of World War II

“She didn’t want to die and it not be told — that nobody would know. It was terribly important. And it’s important to survivors today that somebody hears the story, somebody believes.”


Excerpt from an editorial in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine

Attitudes to Torture
Helen Bamber, Elizabeth Gordon, Rami Heilbronn, and Duncan Forrest

For several years there has been plentiful evidence that the Israeli General Security Service (GSS), also known as Shin Bet or Shabak, has routinely used harsh techniques of interrogation, euphemistically known as ‘moderate physical pressure’ or even ‘increased physical pressure’, when interrogating Palestinian suspects, even though Israel is a signatory of the UN Convention against Torture. The techniques are so well known that some of them have attracted nicknames. They include hooding, violent shaking, being shackled to a low, sloping chair (shabeh), being forced to crouch for extended periods (gambaz), being subjected to loud music, transient suffocation and sleep deprivation.

One problem appears to be that, like many defenders of Israel’s methods of interrogation, neither Dr Blachar nor Professor Dolev regards ‘moderate physical pressure’ as torture, despite repeated protests by the UN Committee against Torture. Of course, we are well aware that the security situation has deteriorated disastrously since our meeting in November 1999, and apologists for the methods will argue that their use is now even more justified; but increased danger does not excuse the continued use of inhumane techniques. Indeed, it is now even more important that Israeli physicians should take steps to show the world that they respect international standards of ethical conduct.

(Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine v.95(5); May 2002)




Born May 1

Ignazio Silone (Secondino Tranquilli) (b. 1900) – Italian novelist, essayist, political activist – The School for Dictators (1939)

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (b. 1881) – French Jesuit, paleontologist, philosopher – The Phenomenon of Man (1959)

Judy Collins (b. 1939) – U.S. singer/songwriter – Wings of Angels album



May 2 – Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day

Ichiyo Higuchi (Higuchi Natsu) (born May 2, 1872) – Japanese novelist, poet, diarist – Child’s Play (also translated as Growing Up)  Ichiyo Higuchi

Read about Ichiyo Higuchi here and here

“After celebrating a golden age that was hundreds of years ahead of other civilized nations, women in Japan quickly fell from the cultural vanguard they had enjoyed during the Heian and were silent throughout the succession of bakufu governments that ended with the Meiji restoration in 1868. Ichiyo is widely credited as one of the first female voices to re-emerge after this extended silence. Though her career was cut short by her early death, several of her short stories are still in wide circulation in Japan and elsewhere. The beauty of this book is that it not only includes her own writings but also a rather deftly crafted biography.”

( customer review for In The Shade Of  Spring
Leaves: The Life Of Higuchi Ichiyo by Robert Lyons Danly)

Excerpt from Higuchi’s diary. dated May 2, 1896

. . . of all the visitors I receive, nine out of ten come merely out of curiosity, because they find it amusing that I am a woman. That is why they praise and congratulate me as a “modern Sei Shonagon” or a “modern Murasaki Shikibu,” even when I only produce scratch paper. They do not have enough insight to fathom my deepest thoughts, and they only delight in the fact that I am a woman writer. Thus they reveal nothing in their criticism. Even if there are flaws in my work, they cannot see them. And when there are good things in my work, they cannot explain them. They merely say “Ichiyo is good,” “she is skillful,” and “her skills even exceed those of male writers, not to mention other female writers,” and “Indeed, she is good and talented.” Besides such empty phrases, can they find no other words to say? Can they not see any flaws in my work to criticize? This is indeed a strange phenomenon.

(from page 147 of The Modern Murasaki: Writing by Women of Meiji Japan
by Rebecca L. Copeland and Melek Ortabasi}

Higuchi Ichiyo is often described as a genius who made a meteoric rise from obscurity only to disappear as suddenly as she had appeared. She published most of her twenty-one novellas between 1889 and 1896 and died of consumption at the age of twenty-four while at the height of her success. Despite the brevity of her writing career, Ichiyo is today considered a canonical Meiji woman writer for her elegant yet candid depictions of lower-class everyday life in and around the Tokyo demimonde.

“Takekurabe,” which is probably Ichiyo’s most famous work, portrays a group of adolescents coming of age in a lower-class neighborhood adjacent to one of Tokyo`s pleasure quarters. The story focuses on the bittersweet love between Midori and Nobu, two young teens. As they gradually become aware of their feelings for each other, they also realize that they must part ways to become a courtesan/prostitute and a Buddhist priest, respectively, in order to fulfill familial expectations.

Ichiyo skillfully develops these two and a handful of other adolescent characters; she shows how varied educational, economic, and social-class backgrounds could be, even in a small lower-class neighborhood. She also shows how these differences lead innocent children to follow predetermined paths in life. To this day, “Takekurabe” is taught as one of the masterpieces of modern Japanese literature. It is also readily available through a variety of popular adaptations in the form of TV dramas, movies, manga comics, and anime.

Her diary (1887- 1896), excerpts of which are presented here, was first published in 1911, sixteen years after her death, through the efforts of her younger sister, Kuniko, and a literary friend,  Baha  Kocho (1869-1940). It covers the last ten years of her life, during which she first aspired to excel in poetry and later became involved in writing prose. Ichiyo’s diary (or nikki) is more than just a collection of personal memoranda and private accounts; it also functioned as a means for learning penmanship and composition. Her diary is also a highly valuable source of information about Meiji society in general and more particularly about the literary works and figures of the 1890’s, all observed through Ichiyo’s critical eye. Additionally, the diary takes on the character of a practical daily record when Ichiyo becomes the official head of the household and starts keeping records of visitors to the Higuchis, their visits to others, daily income, and debts.

(written by Kyoko Omari in The Modern Murasaki)



Born May 2

Kwon-taek Im (or Im Kwon Taek) (b. 1936) – Korean film director, screenwriter – Chihwaseon (2002)

Satyajit Ray (b. 1921) – Indian filmmaker, science and detective fiction writer, poet – Feluda series short stories



May 3

 Betty Comden Betty Comden (born May 3, 1915 or 1917) – U.S. playwright, songwriter, screenwriter (musicals) – Singin’ in the Rain

Read about Betty Comden here and here

Read the U.K. Guardian obituary here

Judy Holliday sang Comden and Green’s opening number, Perfect Relationship in Jule Styne’s musical, Bells Are Ringing (1956), and with Just In Time and the heartbreaking resignation of The Party’s Over, it was clear that the American musical was in perfect hands.

Read the New York Times obituary here

“On the Town,” the story of three sailors on shore leave in New York, opened late in 1944 and was a smash.  New Yorkers inside and outside the theater were soon humming the town’s geography à la Comden and Green:

The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down,
The people ride in a hole in the ground,
New York, New York,
It’s a helluva town.

Ms. Comden and Mr. Green were definitely on their way up, not to the Bronx but to big-time success.

It was truly a “Perfect Relationship” in which they met daily, most often in Ms. Comden’s living room, either to work on a show, to trade ideas or even just talk about the weather. “We stare at each other,” Ms. Comden said in a 1977 interview with The New York Times. “We meet, whether or not we have a project, just to keep up a continuity of working. There are long periods when nothing happens, and it’s just boring and disheartening. But we have a theory that nothing’s wasted, even those long days of staring at one another.

Watch Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin perform “New York New York” in the 1949  film On the Town here

NewYork NewYork still with Sinatra-Kelly-Munshin

Watch a 1979 TV interview of Betty Comden and Adolf Green

Listen to Doris Day sing “Make Someone Happy” — lyrics by Comden and Green



Born May 3

Leslie Marmon Silko (b. 1948) – Native American (U.S.) novelist, poet, essayist – The Delicacy and Strength of Lace: Letters Between Leslie Marmon Silko and James Wright (1986)

Yehuda Amichai (b. 1924) – German-Israeli poet



May 4

Rudiger Nehberg photo by Jens Wunderlich

Rüdiger Nehberg (born May 4, 1935) – German survival expert, human rights activist, environmentalist – Medizin Survival: Überleben ohne Arzt / Survival Medicine: Life without a Doctor (1998)

Read about Rudiger Nehberg here

From an Amazon review of Nehberg’s book, Medizin Survival

I was with a German aid organization for half a year in Africa, one of the poorest places on earth, in the Nuba Mountains of the  Sudan. In the luggage (only 20 kg  allowed,  so I was being  picky!) I had  Rüdiger Nehberg’s lexicon of survival medicine .  Our small German team was without a doctor —  only a midwife, pediatric nurse, nurse, and an EMT.
Twice this book was of great help: once to bring a dislocated jaw expertly back into the correct position, and the second time it saved a life:  A young man with a knife wound  had suffered a collapsed lung.. Using the book’s easy-to-understand description of the treatment, we were able to release the patients four days later as cured. If I ever again do a project abroad, this book will travel with me! THANK YOU, Rüdiger Nehberg!

(Read the review, in German, here)

Watch Nehberg in his element (1 hour documentary, German language)




Born May 4

Rey Valera (b. 1954) – Filipino songwriter

Khwaja Abdullah Ansari (b. 1006) – Persian Sufi poet



May 5


Thomas Boberg (born May 5, 1960) – Danish poet

Read about Thomas Boberg here and here

Read some of Boberg’s poetry here

Postcard from Thomas Boberg

Bibliography of Boberg’s books



Born May 5

Elizabeth Cochrane (Nellie Bly) (b. 1864) – U.S. journalist

Soren Kierkegaard (b. 1813) – Danish philosopher

Tammy Wynette (b. 1942) – U.S. country music singer / songwriter



May 6

Vladimiro Ariel Dorfman (born May 6, 1942) – Chilean playwright, human rights activist Ariel Dorfman

Read about Ariel Dorfman here and here

The author of eight novels, seven plays, a memoir, and several collections of essays, short stories, and poetry, Dorfman’s international success boomed with Death and the Maiden, a play about the complex and painful issues that confront nations as they transition from dictatorship to democracy.”

(from Interview with Ariel Dorfman by Sophia A. McClennen
Context, No. 15, 2004)

Read an interview of Ariel Dorfman speaking about the autobiographical documentary A Promise to the Dead (2007)

I don’t think the regime ever dies; it continues on in very many perverse and interesting ways. The issue is not that the adversary is no longer in the ring, but whether you can recognize that he’s still in the ring. When you can’t blame Pinochet for everything you begin to realize that the problem wasn’t Pinochet; it was complicity. It was our own weaknesses and failures that allowed him to exist.

Watch the Pen Center “Ariel Dorfman in Conversation”

Ariel Dorfman reads “Asylum”




Born May 6

Sujata Bhatt (b. 1956) – Indian/U.S. poet

Sigmund Freud (b. 1856) – Austrian psychiatrist – The Interpretation of Dreams



May 7

WD Valgardson

William Dempsey Valgardson (born May 7, 1939) – Canadian novelist, short story writer, poet – The Girl With the Botticelli Face (1992)

Read about W.D. Valgardson here and here and here

Read an interview with W.D. Valgardson

” I tell my students that there are two journeys that every writer must take. The first journey is into the lives of others. But the second journey is the most terrifying. It is the journey into the self. I think what happens with a lot of people is that they turn away. They suddenly become aware of their motivations and they realize some of the things they are capable of. They don’t understand that just because they’re capable of something, they don’t have to do it.”



Born May 7

Volker Braun (b. 1939) – German poet, playwright, essayist

Rabindranath Tagore (b. 1861) – Indian poet, novelist, 1913 Nobel Prize winner

Robert Browning (b. 1812) – English poet – “Why I am a Liberal”



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