THE WORST MARINE DISASTER OF ALL-TIME
WAS THE SINKING OF THE WILHELM GUSTLOFF
ON JANUARY 30, 1945.
The Wilhelm Gustloff, built as a Nazi passenger
cruise ship (and named for a Swiss Nazi demogogue)
in 1937, had been stranded in the East Prussian port
of Gotenhofen on the Baltic Sea since the outset of
World War II. As Soviet troops overtook East Prussia
in early 1945, over a million ethnic Germans, whose
families had lived in East Prussia for centuries,
attempted to flee to the German mainland a few
hundred miles away via the Baltic sea route to avoid
the pillaging and raping by the Russian soldiers as
they reconquered the area. The Wilhelm Gustloff,
built to accommodate 1500 passengers and 500 crew,
was overloaded with about 11,000 men, women and
children (some of whom were German soldiers), and
began a 200-plus mile sea trip in a storm. (The trip
was no longer possible by rail or truck.) A Soviet
submarine spotted the ship, and sent four torpedoes
at it, sinking the ship in a brief time. Approximately
9400 persons died in the sinking, making it it the
largest loss of life from one ship disaster in history.
[Further reading: Death in the Baltic by Cathryn J. Prince.]
THE FATHER OF THE AMERICAN ENGLISH
LANGUAGE WAS NOT A LITERARY PERSON,
WROTE NO BOOKS, AND DID NOT EVER
ATTEND A SCHOOL.
Although his name is a household word in the United
States and in much of the rest of the world for his
role as president of the United States during the nation’s
Civil War (1861-65) and his assassination, it is much
less known that Abrham Lincoln is considered by
some today as the father of the modern American
English language. This role is usually assigned to
a major literary figure (e.g., Shakespeare in British
English, Dante in Italian, Cervantes in Spanish,
Pushkin in Russian, et al). The only American writer
who even comes close to Lincoln, and came after
him, was Samuel Clemens (“Mark Twain”).
Lincoln’s major speeches are still considered today
as the finest examples of their kind by an American,
and his collected speeches and letters form a unique
body of the English language spoken and written in
the U.S. as it was being transformed from its British
origins. Lincoln’s language, almost alone among his
19th century contemporaries (including Hawthorne,
Emerson, Melville, Longfellow, et al) remains fresh
today without the “dated” quality of almost
everyone else in his era. Amazingly, Lincoln was
entirely self-taught, and did not ever attend a school
in his childhood.
[Further reading: Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln,
Rutgers University Press]
THE FIRST MODERN NOVEL WAS WRITTEN
MORE THAN A THOUSAND YEARS AGO by a
Japanese noblewoman know as “Lady Murasaki” (but
whose real name is unknown). A lady-in-waiting to the
Empress Shoshi of the Heian period of 11th century
Japan, she wrote her extraordinary fictional account of
life, manners and personalities of the contemporary
Japanese court in an unprecedented work entitled The
Tale of Genji. It is also described today as the first
psychological work of fiction. The novel form did
not truly emerge until more than 500 years later in
the West. Remarkably, The Tale of Genji is even
today a highly readable, fascinating masterpiece.
[Further reading: Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki (trans.)]
THE GREATEST AMERICAN NATURAL DISASTER
was the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 which
inundated most of the mid-Mississippi River Valley
following an unprecedented period of rain beginning
in August, 1926. At its peak, months later, the flood
covered 27 thousand square miles and dislocated
millions of persons. More than 240 persons are known
to have died (although the total death toll is not known).
Cities such as Nashville and Memphis were under water.
Damage estimates at the time were approximately half
a billion dollars (in today's dollars, many hundreds of
billions). The Flood changed the nation in many ways.
Large numbers of black residents, many of them
descendants of slaves, were put in concentration camps,
and subsequently emigrated to large cities in the North.
President Coolidge did not visit the area, but put his
secretary of commerce, Herbert Hoover, in charge.
(When Coolidge decided not to run for re-election in
1928, Hoover, as a result of the publicity he received
overseeing flood relief, was elected president.) Contending
that the individual states could not adequately deal with
the disaster caused by the Mississippi River which ran through
them, the federal government assumed overriding powers
through the Army of Engineers, and this marked the
beginning of the rise of federal bureaucratic power in the
U.S. The whole story of this disaster, now largely forgotten,
is filled with colorful and extraordinary figures, many of
whom became major national figures in the years that
[Further reading: Rising Tide by John M. Barry]
THE LANGUAGES OF THE FINNS, ESTONIANS
AND HUNGARIANS HAVE THE SAME ROOTS
BUT COME FROM ASIA NOT EUROPE.
Known as the Uraic family of languages,
Magyar, Finnish and Estonian have no roots in the
much larger Indo-European family of languages
which are spoken in most of the nations near them.
Although their exact origins are not yet fully known,
philologists, in fact, trace these languages partially
back to Siberian Asian (Chuvash) roots and to those
who came to the region more than two thousand
years ago. Magyar, the official language of Hungary,
is the largest non-Indo-European language spoken
[Further reading: The Story of Hungarian by Geza Balasz]
THE GREATEST LIVING POET CAN’T
SPEAK OR WRITE .
The Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer suffered a
stroke in 1990, and has since been unable to speak
or write. Nevertheless, he received the Nobel Prize
for literature in 2011, and is considered by many
to be the greatest living poet in any language.
His short and austere poems, critics say, create
stunning images and spaces. Before his stroke,
he worked professionally as a psychologist in a
prison while at the same time writing poems and
publishing several books of Swedish poetry. He has
since been translated into many languages.
[Further reading: Twenty Poems by Tomas Transtromer,
and Windows & Stones by Tomas Transtromer; (both
ONE OF THE WORLD’S GREATEST
SCULPTORS HAD NO TRUE HANDS.
The 18th century Brazilian sculptor Antonio Lisboa
was the son of a Portuguese carpenter and a slave
mother. While relatively young, he developed either
leprosy or sclerodoma, and lost all the fingers of his
hands as well as his feet. He became known as “O
Aleijadinho” (or “The Little Cripple”). Most of his
scupture in the Brazilian province of Minas
Gerais were created after he was disfigured, and
through truly remarkable efforts, he created many
masterpieces, most of which survive today.
[Further reading: O Aleijadinho by D.G. Ferreira (in
SAUDI ARABIA DID NOT EXIST UNTIL
1924, OIL WAS NOT DISCOVERED THERE
UNTIL 1937, AND THE GOVERNMENT DID
NOT MAKE A REAL PROFIT FROM OIL
UNTIL AFTER WORLD WAR II.
Until 1924,the Arabian peninsula had no fixed
national boundaries, no formal nation states, and
was inhabited primarily by nomadic Bedouin tribes
that went back thousands of years. It technically was
part of the Ottoman empire under its sultan who then
ruled the Islamic world. Ibn Saud, a young leader
of the Wahhabi tribe and 6 foot 4 inch warrior prince
who grew up living in tents and moving about the
southern Asir region of Arabia with his family,
began his unification of the various tribes in 1902
by seizing the ancient Wahhabi capital of Riyadh,
and then by systematically eliminating in battle the
usually more powerful rival sheikhs in the region
over the next two decades. After the sultan was
deposed and the Ottoman empire dissolved
following World War I, Ibn Saud was declared king
of the new Saudi Arabia. Short of cash, he made
deals with the British, and then the Americans, to
allow exploration for oil and gas in the peninsula
which led to major discoveries in 1937. Because of
breakout of war in Europe and Africa in 1939-40,
the huge profits from the oil fields did not appear
until after World War II, when Saudi Arabia became
the world’s largest producer and seller of oil.
[Further reading: Ibn Saud by M. Darlow & B. Bray]
THE AMERICAN SPY WHO FOUND OUT
THAT THE GERMANS WERE NOT
WORKING ON THE ATOMIC BOMB
WAS PREVIOUSLY A CATCHER IN MAJOR
LEAGUE BASEBALL FOR 15 YEARS.
Morris “Moe” Berg played for American League
teams for most of his 15-year baseball career, and
was called “the brainiest man ever to play baseball.”
Casey Stengel, of all persons, even once called him
“the strangest man ever to play baseball.” An
impoverished son of European Jewish immigrants,
he received degrees from Princeton and Columbia
law school, and became famous early for his highly
successful appearances on the national radio quiz
show “Information Please.” He spoke seven
languages, and when war broke out, he became a
U.S. spy sent to Italy and Central Europe to assess
the Nazi atomic bomb program. After World War II,
he worked for the Central Intelligence Agency. In
spite of his extraordinary and colorful career and
life, he died in obscurity in 1972.
[Further reading: Heisenberg’s War by Thomas Powers]
THE SMALLEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD
IS LOCATED ON THE UPPER FLOORS OF
A VILLA IN DOWNTOWN ROME, HAS EXISTED
FOR ALMOST 1000 YEARS, HAS DIPLOMATIC
RELATIONS WITH MORE THAN 100 NATIONS,
IS AN OFFICIAL OBSERVER AT THE UNITED
NATIONS, COINS ITS OWN MONEY AND PRINTS
ITS OWN STAMPS.
The (shortened) name of this country is officially
Sovrane Militare Ordine di Malta or S.M.O.M.
It is an important worldwide Catholic philanthropic
entity known traditionally as the Knights of Malta,
and it once ruled the island nation of Malta, and was
a major European naval power. Today, its size has been
reduced to two villas in the city of Rome and some land
in the outskirts of the Italian capital. It has an official
population of three persons. Only the upper floors
of one of the villas is considered the sovereign territory
of S.M.O.M. It is therefore the only nation on earth which
can only be entered by elevator.
[Further reading: Report From Practically Nowhere by
Copyright (c) 2013 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.