Category Archives: labor

Wordcatcher Tales: Trümmerfrauen, Kachelofen, Luftbrücke, OGs

I recently finished reading a new book, Journey Interrupted: A Family Without a Country in a World at War, by Hildegarde Mahoney (Regan Arts, 2016). It’s about a German family in New York City who planned to visit relatives in Germany. They set out in the spring of 1941, after the war had started, so they aimed to take the long way around, via the West Coast, Pacific Ocean, Japan, and Siberia, because the war in Europe had started, but the Eastern Front was quiet. They landed in Yokohama just as Germany attacked the Soviet Union, violating the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939. They spent the war years in Japan, several postwar years in Germany, arriving back in New York a decade after they left.

I came across a few words of interest, which I’ll cite in context to give a small taste of the tale.

Trümmerfrauen (rubble women), from Kindle Loc. 2036-2042:

We devoured the food the waiter gave us, thrilled to have solid food to eat. The next stop we made was at the Red Cross. Once again, we were badly shaken at the sight of the many men we passed who had lost legs, arms, or both and had not yet been able to get prostheses. Turning the corner into the next street, we saw something we deemed highly unusual. There, in front of long planks of wood, sat a row of women, all with hammers in hand, chipping cement off perfectly good bricks and throwing the cleaned bricks on a pile. They proceeded to take another cement-caked brick off the pile of rubble, knock off its cement, and throw it on the cleaned pile. That procedure went on throughout the day in almost every city, and it was thanks to the many Trümmerfrauen (“rubble women”), as they were known, that the rebuilding of Germany had slowly begun.

Kachelofen (tile oven), from Kindle Loc. 2338-2342:

The very gray days were beginning to get shorter, and even during the midday hours it was difficult to distinguish between land and sky. In that part of northern Germany the days were uniformly gray, cool, and frequently misty and foggy. It was a time of year I did not like at all, remembering the freezing weather in Karuizawa. It was, however, a time to enjoy sitting around the old-fashioned tile oven in the living room. In those days there was no central heating. Instead, each room had a Kachelofen (a tile oven) in which one built a fire in the early morning that kept on heating the room throughout the day with the addition, from time to time, of more wood or coal.

Luftbrücke (airlift, lit. ‘airbridge’), from Kindle Loc. 2610-2614:

In May 1949, there was good news. The Luftbrücke, also known as the Berlin Airlift, which had begun in June 1948 in response to the Soviet blockade of Berlin—the United States, Britain, and France had been flying in supplies to the western sector of Berlin after the Russians had cut off all routes by land and sea—was winding down when the Soviet barricades were lifted. At the end of September, Luftbrücke finally ended its operation after more than a quarter million flights.

OGs (Office Girls, called OLs in Japan these days), from Kindle Loc. 2858-2864:

I started work at Time Inc. on the twenty-third floor, where the Time International offices were located. There, right off the elevators, was the office girls’ desk, where two of us were stationed at all times. We were known as OGs and did everything from making coffee first thing in the morning to sorting and delivering mail, sharpening pencils, and running errands. At the end of the day, we made the rounds of the offices and picked up any mail left in the outgoing boxes on the writers’ desks and worked with the mailroom when there were larger packages or boxes to go out. Most of the week things went pretty smoothly, except at the end of every week just before Time magazine was put to bed and press time approached. Then things would get pretty tense, as everyone was pressured and under the gun to meet the deadline.

Leave a comment

Filed under Germany, Japan, labor, language, migration, U.S., war

European Peace Dividends, 1713

The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down, by Colin Woodard (Mariner Books, 2008), Kindle Loc. 1212-1228:

WITH THE END of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713, tens of thousands of sailors suddenly found themselves out of a job. The Royal Navy, bankrupted by the twelve-year-long world war, rapidly demobilized, mothballing ships and dumping nearly three-quarters of its manpower, over 36,000 men, in the first twenty-four months following the signing of the Peace of Utrecht. Privateering commissions ceased to have any value, their owners compelled to tie their warships up and turn the crews out onto the wharves of England and the Americas. With thousands of sailors begging for work in every port, merchant captains slashed wages by 50 percent; those lucky enough to find work had to survive on twenty-two to twenty-eight shillings (£1.1 to £1.4) a month.

Peace did not bring safety to those English sailors who found work in the West Indies. Spanish coast guard vessels, the guardas costas, continued to seize English vessels passing to and from Jamaica, declaring them smugglers if so much as a single Spanish coin were found aboard. They always found the “illicit” coins because they were the de facto currency of all of England’s Caribbean colonies. Thirty-eight Jamaican vessels were so seized in the first two years of peace, costing the vessel owners nearly £76,000. When the crews resisted, the guardas costas often killed a few in retribution; the rest spent months or years in Cuban prisons. “The seas,” the governor of Jamaica would later recall, had become “more dangerous than in time of war.”

As the months passed, the streets, taverns and boarding houses of Port Royal grew crowded with angry, destitute mariners. Merchants, stung by their losses, sent out fewer vessels, further reducing the number of jobs for sailors. Those sailors who had been captured—some more than once—were physically abused by the Spanish and financially pinched by their employers, who reduced their losses by not paying them for the time they were serving in prison. “Resentment and the want of employ,” one resident later recalled, “were certainly the motives to a course of life which I am of [the] opinion that most or many of them would not have taken up had they been redressed or could by any lawful mean have supported themselves.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Caribbean, economics, England, France, labor, Netherlands, piracy, Spain, U.K., war

Central Asiatic Railway Towns, 1932

From The Invisible Writing, by Arthur Koestler (PFD Books, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1808-1830:

Soviet Central Asia was divided at that time into three Autonomous Republics: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tadzhikistan. Among these Turkmenistan is the most desolate. Its borders are the Caspian in the West, Persia and Afghanistan in the South, the Amu Darya in the East and the Autonomous Kazakh Republic in the North. It is approximately the size of Germany, but its population in 1932 was less than a million. Its surface is almost entirely desert, only habitable on its fringes, where sparse water-courses make irrigation possible. The chief product of the irrigated areas is cotton.

There are few towns. One cluster of oases lies in the North, round the mouth of the Amu Darya, where it flows into the Aral Sea. This is the former Khanat of Khiva, which in 1932 was still something of a Shangri-la, inaccessible from the South except by camel-caravans. The remaining towns are strung in a single line along the Central Asiatic Railway which skirts the Kapet Dagh hills along the Persian frontier. In spite of their picturesque names, these towns—Kizyl Arvat, Bakharden, Geok Tepe, Ashkhabad, Merv—are not oriental in character but typical Russian garrison-towns. In fact, the main feature of the towns of Turkmenistan was that they were not inhabited by Turkomans but by Russians—government officials, railway workers, soldiers, merchants, artisans and colonials; the natives were left to their semi-nomadic existence. The change only started with the industrial revolution under the Five-Year Plan. The new factories drew native labour into the towns, and the creation of a ‘class-conscious native industrial proletariat’ became a declared aim of Soviet policy in all national republics. Even so, in 1932 the Turkomans were still a minority in the towns of Turkmenistan, including Ashkhabad, the capital.

The result was a complete absence of local colour and local architecture in these Czarist garrison-towns which cover like pockmarks the noble face of Asia. The Bolsheviks completed the process which Russian Imperalism had begun. The aim of Czarist colonisation had been to keep the natives in their state of semi-barbarism and ignorance—at the time of the Revolution there were less than one per cent literates in Turkmenistan. The Communist régime took an apparently opposite line which in fact, however, completed the tragedy. The natives were drawn into the towns, educated, Russified and Stalinised by the pressure-cooker method. The children of the nomads were brought to school, processed, indoctrinated, and stripped of their national identity. All national tradition, folklore, arts and crafts, were eradicated by force and by propaganda. Everywhere in Asia primitive tribes and nations were transformed into a nondescript, colourless and amorphous mass of robots in the totalitarian State.

With two exceptions—old Bokhara and Samarkand—I have almost no visual memory of the places I visited in Central Asia. In retrospect, Krasnovodsk, Ashkhabad, Merv, Tashkent, all dissolve in the same uniform dreariness of the Russian provincial small-town, except that they were even poorer and drearier.

Leave a comment

Filed under Central Asia, economics, education, industry, labor, nationalism, Russia, USSR

Emancipation Comes to the U.S. Southwest, 1860s

From The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Yale U. Press, 2008), pp. 318-319:

It was an open secret that the livestock and laborers that fueled New Mexico’s economic growth during and after the Civil War years were looted from Texas and northern Mexico.

The contraband cattle and captive trade and the violence it fueled in Texas were a stinging embarrassment for the federal agents in New Mexico, Kansas, and Indian Territory. They had failed to restrain the Comanches, who ignored the reservation boundaries as defined in the Treaty of Little Arkansas, refused to relinquish slave traffic, and yet frequented Fort Larned, their assigned agency near the Big Bend of the Arkansas, to collect government supplies. Shameful reports of “lives taken and property stolen by Indians … fed and clothed and armed by the representatives of the U.S. Gov” poured out of Texas, putting enormous pressure on the Indian Office and its agents. Determined to extend emancipation from the South to the Southwest, federal agents repeatedly demanded that the Comanches and Kiowas relinquish their captives. But instead of eradicating slavery and captive trade, such interventions ended up supporting them. Comanches and Kiowas did turn numerous captives over to U.S. agents, but only if they received handsome ransoms in cash or goods. As one federal agent despaired: “every prisoner purchased from the Indians amounts to giving them a license to go and commit the same overt act. They boastfully say that stealing white women is more of a lucrative business than stealing horses.” The United States’ emancipation efforts had created a new outlet for slave trafficking for Comanches, and its punitive reconstruction policies in Texas opened a deep supply base: the demilitarized western part of the state lay wide open for Comanche slaving parties.

The struggle over the captives epitomized the collision between the Comanches and the United States and precipitated its progression to open war. The persistence of slavery and captive traffic convinced U.S. policymakers that the Southwest was not big enough for both traditional borderland cultural economics and the new American system of state-sponsored, free-labor capitalism. Perplexed and put off by their own involvement in the captive business, U.S. authorities, most of them Civil War veterans, started to call for tougher policies and, if necessary, the extermination of the slave-trafficking Indians. In 1867, when presented with the case of a thirteen-year-old Texas boy for whom Comanches demanded “remuneration,” General William Tecumseh Sherman, the commander of the U.S. Army, responded that the officials should no longer “Submit to this practice of paying for Stolen children. It is better the Indian race be obliterated.”

Leave a comment

Filed under economics, labor, Mexico, migration, military, slavery, U.S., war

Homelessness in North Korea

From Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2009), Kindle Loc. 2613-2626:

It is worth noting here how extraordinary it was for anyone to be homeless in North Korea. This was, after all, the country that had developed the most painstaking systems to keep track of its citizens. Everybody had a fixed address and a work unit and both were tied to food rations—if you left home, you couldn’t get fed. People didn’t dare visit a relative in the next town without a travel permit. Even overnight visitors were supposed to be registered with the inminban, which in turn had to report to the police the name, gender, registration number, travel permit number, and the purpose of the visit. Police conducted regular spot checks around midnight to make sure nobody had unauthorized visitors. One had to carry at all times a “citizen’s certificate,” a twelve-page passport-size booklet that contained a wealth of information about the bearer. It was modeled on the old Soviet ID.

All that changed with the famine. Without food distribution, there was no reason to stay at your fixed address. If sitting still meant you starved to death, no threat the regime levied could keep people home. For the first time, North Koreans were wandering around their own country with impunity. Among the homeless population, a disproportionate number were children or teenagers. In some cases, their parents had gone off in search of jobs or food. But there was another, even stranger, explanation. Facing a food shortage, many North Korean families conducted a brutal triage of their own households—they denied themselves and often elderly grandparents food in order to keep the younger generation alive. That strategy produced an unusual number of orphans, as the children were often the last ones left of entire families that had perished.

Leave a comment

Filed under economics, family, food, Korea, labor, migration

Manchuria Again a Promised Land

From Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden (Penguin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 1886-1905:

The capacity of the Chinese borderlands to absorb North Koreans is significant—and significantly underappreciated outside of Northeast Asia. The area is not all that foreign—or unwelcoming—to Korean-speaking migrants.

When defectors cross into China, the first “foreigners” they encounter are usually ethnic Koreans who speak the same language, eat similar food, and share some of the same cultural values. With a bit of luck, they can, like Shin, find work, shelter, and a measure of safety.

This has been going on since the late 1860s, when famine struck North Korea and starving farmers fled across the Tumen and the Yalu rivers into northeast China. Later, China’s imperial government recruited Korean farmers to create a buffer against Russian expansion, and Korea’s Choson Dynasty allowed them to depart legally. Before World War II, the Japanese who occupied the Korean Peninsula and northeast China pushed tens of thousands of Korean farmers across the border to weaken China’s hold on the region.

Nearly two million ethnic Koreans now live in China’s three northeast provinces, with the highest concentration in Jilin, which Shin entered when he crawled across the frozen river. Inside Jilin Province, China created the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, where forty percent of the population is ethnic Korean and where the government subsidizes Korean-language schools and publications.

Korean speakers living in northeast China have also been an unsung force for cultural change inside North Korea. They have affected this change by watching South Korean soap operas on home satellite dishes, recording low-quality video CDs, and smuggling hundreds of thousands of them across the border into North Korea, where they sell for as little as fifteen cents, according to Rimjin-gang, the Osaka-based magazine that has informants based in the North.

South Korean soaps—which display the fast cars, opulent houses, and surging confidence of South Korea—are classified as “impure recorded visual materials” and are illegal to watch in North Korea. But they have developed a huge following in Pyongyang and other cities, where police officers assigned to confiscate the videos are reportedly watching them and where teenagers imitate the silky intonations of the Korean language as it is spoken by upper-crust stars in Seoul.

These TV programs have demolished decades of North Korean propaganda, which claims that the South is a poor, repressed, and unhappy place, and that South Koreans long for unification under the fatherly hand of the Kim dynasty.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, economics, Japan, Korea, labor, language, migration

Born and Bred in the NK Gulag

From Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden (Penguin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 119-134:

In stories of concentration camp survival, there is a conventional narrative arc. Security forces steal the protagonist away from a loving family and a comfortable home. To survive, he abandons moral principles, suppresses feelings for others, and ceases to be a civilized human being.

In perhaps the most celebrated of these stories, Night, by Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, the thirteen-year-old narrator explains his torment with an account of the normal life that existed before he and his family were packed aboard trains bound for Nazi death camps. Wiesel studied the Talmud daily. His father owned a store and watched over their village in Romania. His grandfather was always present to celebrate the Jewish holidays. But after the boy’s entire family perished in the camps, Wiesel was left “alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy.”

Shin’s story of survival is different.

His mother beat him, and he viewed her as a competitor for food. His father, who was allowed by guards to sleep with his mother just five nights a year, ignored him. His brother was a stranger. Children in the camp were untrustworthy and abusive. Before he learned anything else, Shin learned to survive by snitching on all of them.

Love and mercy and family were words without meaning. God did not disappear or die. Shin had never heard of him. In a preface to Night, Wiesel wrote that an adolescent’s knowledge of death and evil “should be limited to what one discovers in literature.”

In Camp 14, Shin did not know literature existed. He saw only one book in the camp, a Korean grammar, in the hands of a teacher who wore a guard’s uniform, carried a revolver on his hip, and beat one of his primary school classmates to death with a chalkboard pointer.

Unlike those who have survived a concentration camp, Shin had not been torn away from a civilized existence and forced to descend into hell. He was born and raised there. He accepted its values. He called it home.

Leave a comment

Filed under Germany, Korea, labor, religion