Dec. 28, 2005
Where the world went wrong
JAY BUSHINSKY, THE JERUSALEM POST
With 15 years of research and newly released archival material, Shlomo Aronson reveals how the Allies failed the Jews.
Allies, and the Jews
By Shlomo Aronson
Cambridge University Press
Analyzing the course of World War II in terms of its impact on the Jews of Europe is in and of itself a difficult task, but evaluating the roles played by those in the West as well as in British-controlled Palestine is even more daunting. With his prowess as a brilliant historian and experience as an outstanding foreign correspondent to guide him, Hebrew University's Shlomo Aronson succeeded in encompassing the topic thoroughly and incisively.
His main conclusion is that the Nazi Holocaust was a "multiple trap" forged by diabolical fanatics, led by Hitler, abetted by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husseini, and facilitated in many ways by callous British and American diplomats and intelligence agents. In short, the Jews had no way out.
One of the most unusual outcomes of the 15 years of research which Aronson devoted to this agonizing subject is the discovery that the Zionist leadership - including Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion - were tardy and ineffective in their efforts to stop the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis.
Even the heroic parachute mission undertaken by Hanna Szenes, Enzo Sereni and Yoel Palgi among others - with British consent and support - came too late to save Jews or organize armed anti-Nazi operations in Hungary and Romania.
Rescue efforts headquartered in Istanbul and Geneva, Aronson concludes, were largely inept. They often resorted to bribing cynical SS officers willing to make deals to release beleaguered Jews to Palestine, England or the few other havens partially open to them.
Previously, they proved incapable of organizing armed resistance by infiltrating militarily-competent Jews from Palestine or aiding the fledgling Jewish resistance activity in the ghettos and death camps.
Lack of information cannot be used as an excuse. The protracted genocide was well known by 1941, two years after the German conquest of Poland when "Einzatzgruppen" engaged in wholesale shootings of Jewish civilians in Russia.
Winston Churchill, who espoused sympathy for the Jews' plight and for Zionism, could not overcome the indifference of British bureaucracy. Churchill even said "Since the Mongol invasions of Europe in the 16th century, there has never been methodical, merciless butchery on such a scale, or approaching such a scale. We are in the presence of a crime without a name."
Aronson astutely observes that Churchill, who was Hitler's nemesis from the outset, did not identify the victims of this bloodletting. To do so, he maintains, might have been construed by his country's anti-Semites and their counterparts in the United States and Canada as proof that the conflict with Nazi Germany was "a Jews' war."
Military initiatives which might have reduced the number of Jews transported to Auschwitz and other killing centers or might have incapacitated them altogether - such as the aborted idea of bombing the railroad tracks that converged on Auschwitz from the east, south and west or bombing the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex - were kept on the tactical back burner by the British and American air forces, lest their respective forces fall for the calumny that they were risking their lives to save Jews. Aronson contends that the 15th US Air Force, based in Italy, had the capability of fulfilling this mission, but never did.
GREAT BRITAIN'S rationale for its contempt of the Jews is epitomized in a letter sent to Weizmann, March 4, 1943, by the British minister in Washington, Ronald I. Campbell. Referring to the Zionist leader's bid to let 70,000 Romanian Jews emigrate immediately, it said: "His Majesty's Government has no evidence to show whether the Rumanian proposal was meant to be taken seriously. But if it was, it was already a piece of blackmail which if successful would open up the endless prospect on the part of Germany and her satellites in southeastern Europe of unloading at a given price all their unwanted multitudes on overseas countries."
Aronson cites numerous other documents, protocols and official correspondence to verify this attitude. His documentation is overwhelming because much of it was obtained from newly released archival material hitherto inaccessible to journalists, authors and scholars.
One of the reasons it took him 15 years to finish this book is that he considered it essential to wait until the tell-all documents were made public. He is now in the process of translating his original English text into Hebrew for publication in Israel.
Of course, his text is not perfect. At times the English syntax is a bit dense, especially with complex matters such as the British deciphering of German secret codes and the extent to which the Germans could monitor secret cable traffic within the Allied camp.
Despite the Allies' attempts to minimize the relevance of the Jews' predicament to their military operations, Hitler persisted to the end in blaming almost every setback sustained by his Wehrmacht on them. He promptly ordered his underlings to accelerate the pace and extent of the Holocaust.
One of the most pernicious trains of thought fostered by Nazi propaganda and lapped up by American anti-Semites was the Jews' alleged responsibility for the war of which they were "the alleged cause." According to Aronson, FDR may have thought that by avoiding the mention of the catastrophic plight of the Jews in public, and not intervening in an impractical and dangerous fashion in their favor, he actually was serving their cause.
"He might have believed that if he had spoken about their plight in public, it would have ignited Nazi wrath and thereby not have helped the Jews while also giving Hitler some hope that his home front would become even more aware of the war as being fought by the Allies 'for the Jews,'" Aronson writes. (One need only read Philip Roth's latest novel, The Plot Against America, to appreciate the validity of this assumption.)
Hitler, the Allies and the Jews earned Aronson the Israel Political Science Association's award for the most outstanding book in English in 2005 and the international German Studies Association's bi-annual and prestigious Sybil Halpern Milton Memorial book prize for 2004 and 2005.
Mittwoch, 04. Januar 2006
Tante Gerda spricht über Auschwitz
Eine Überlebende bricht ihr Schweigen: ein Tatsachenroman
Knut Elstermann: Gerdas Schweigen. Die Geschichte einer Überlebenden. be.bra verlag Berlin-Brandenburg 2005. 191 S., 16,90 Euro.
Im Oktober 2004 bricht Gerda Schrage ein fast sechs Jahrzehnte währendes Schweigen. Die 84-jährige Jüdin hat sich dazu durchgerungen, über Auschwitz zu sprechen. In ihrer New Yorker Wohnung im Norden Manhattans sitzt sie acht Tage lang ihrem Berliner Wahlneffen Knut Elstermann gegenüber, um zu sagen wie es war.
Unbekannt ist dem um vierzig Jahre Jüngeren das Schicksal seiner "Tante" Gerda nicht. Seit Kindheitstagen weiß er aus Erzählungen der Mutter, von Großmutter und Großtanten, was jene Frau durchleben musste, die man auf alten Fotos aus den zwanziger und dreißiger Jahren als junges Ding mit am Tisch der Berliner Sippe sitzen sieht.
Das Mädchen aus einem zerrütteten jüdischen Elternhaus hatte in der nachbarlichen Familie wärmende Zuwendung gefunden, lange bevor seine Eltern und andere Verwandten Opfer nationalsozialistischer Deportation und Vernichtung werden sollten. Die Pelznäherin Gerda selbst wird während der "Fabrikaktion" im Februar 1942 verhaftet, kann fliehen, sich für Monate bei Knuts Großtante Hilde und hernach bei anderen Freunden verbergen.
Im April 1944 wird Gerda verraten und nach Auschwitz geschickt. Dort bringt sie ein Kind zur Welt, das sie nicht stillen darf und das nach 15 Tagen in ihren Armen verhungert. Als die Rote Armee heranrückt und die SS die Todesfabrik räumt, gelingt Gerda auf einem der Rücktransporte ihre zweite Flucht. Ein Frontsoldat hilft ihr, sich mit den Flüchtlingsströmen wieder nach Berlin durchzuschlagen. Sie kann bis Kriegsende untertauchen. Erzählungen über das, was ihr widerfuhr, stellt sie bald ein. Gerda wandert über Schweden nach den USA aus, gründet eine Familie, doch Ehemann Sam und Sohn Steven hören von ihr nie über die bittersten Tage ihres Lebens.
Der in der DDR heranwachsende Knut war stets dazu angehalten, die Tante aus Amerika nicht nach Auschwitz und dem Kind zu fragen. Nun also, sechzig Jahre nach dem Geschehen und fünfzehn Jahre nach dem Mauerfall, darf es sein. Der Journalist Elstermann ist sich der "gut gemeinten Zumutung" seiner Nachfrage bewusst. Denn Gerdas Schweigen hat gute Gründe. Sie wollte Auschwitz vergessen, es in sich "abschalten", dem Grauen keine Macht über ihr Leben zugestehen. Auch wollte sie den Mann, den Sohn, die Freunde nicht mit dem unfassbar Bösen belasten. Sie hat erfahren, dass es für ihr Leid keine Sprache der Mitteilung gibt.
Gerda hält für Knut keine Geschichte bereit. Sie arbeitet unter seelischen Schmerzen Stücke der Erinnerung aus sich heraus, formt sie zu nüchternen Sätzen, ohne Emotionen preiszugeben. Keine Mutmaßung überbrückt ihre Gedächtnislücken. Elstermann konfrontiert Gerda mit den familiären Erzählungen, die seit Kriegsende ihr Leben "weiter getragen und weiter gedichtet ... haben". Er bringt er ihr ihre Geschichten zurück, lässt sie bestätigen, korrigieren, weiterführen. In raffinierter Konstruktion füllt er die nacherzählten Gespräche auf mit den Ergebnissen solider eigener Recherche, die ihn in Archive, an Stätten des Massenmordens in Polen und Tschechien, zu Zeitzeugen in Israel oder Russland führten. Behutsam sucht er Gerdas Schicksal an der Erfahrung von Leidensgefährten zu spiegeln, ohne der Betroffenen durch unangemessene Vergleiche zu nahe zu treten.
Das Schockierende dieses Buches kommt von zwei Mitteilungs-Ebenen: Da ist zum einen Gerdas Weg durch die Hölle. Und da ist das verstörende Eingeständnis des Berichterstatters: "Was sie dort erlebte und sah, schließt uns aus." Sie sehe etwas, von dem sie weiß, dass wir es uns niemals werden vorstellen können. Darum ihr Schweigen. Vielleicht sei "diese Erkenntnis... wichtiger als alle Gespräche über Auschwitz, dieses späte Akzeptieren einer Grenze, die ich nicht überschreiten ... kann." Wir stehen davor und warten "auf Nachrichten, die Menschen wie Gerda überbringen." Darum jetzt ihr Reden.
Anzunehmen und auszuhalten, worauf diese beiden Gesprächspartner sich einließen, macht jeden Ablasshandel mit dem Holocaust obsolet: Sei es die Elstermann dereinst anerzogene antifaschistische Staatsdoktrin, die die Bürger der DDR als "Sieger der Geschichte" von persönlicher Verantwortung für die NS-Verbrechen freisprach. Sei es eine routinierte Gedenkindustrie mit ihren Angeboten, in Ergriffenheit Läuterung zu demonstrieren. Herausfordernd ehrlich bekennt Elstermann, wie Gerdas Schweigen falsche Geschichtsbilder und für selbstverständlich gehaltene Erinnerungsgebote zu erschüttern vermag, nach Anständigsein und Schuldverstrickung im Alltag fragen lässt. Was er dabei an Haltungen aufspürt, entzieht sich jedem vulgären Geschichtsdeterminismus: Die in der Familie ob ihrer Naivität liebevoll belächelte Großtante Hilde - für Gerda war sie ein stiller Engel. Der fröhliche, gutherzige Großvater gerät als abkommandierter Wachpolizist im tschechischen Kladno ins Geschehen um die mörderische Ausradierung des Dorfes Lidice. Gerdas couragierter Retter in Polen, dessen Identität Elstermann mit Publizistenglück herausfindet, entpuppt sich postum als ein von seinen Kindern gehasster Egozentriker ... So liest sich dieses Dokument des Lebenswillens auch in den "Nebenhandlungen" als ein packender Roman.
Knut Elstermann schrieb die bewegende Geschichte einer Überlebenden (07.10.05)
Knut Elstermann, „Gerdas Schweigen. Die Geschichte einer Überlebenden“, be.bra verlag,
Der Ton ändert sich. Anfangs kommt er in unbekümmert-kindlicher Direktheit daher. Dann gewinnt er mehr und mehr an dramatischer Kraft, die den Atem stocken lässt und die Ereignisse kaum eindringlicher beschreiben könnte. Dabei wird nichts überhöht oder zugespitzt. Allein die schlicht benannten Tatsachen führen bis an die Schmerzgrenze.
Knut Elstermann, u.a. bekannt als Radio Eins-Moderator, machte sich nach der Wende auf den Weg, um „Gerdas Schweigen“ zu brechen. Gerda, die Tante aus Amerika, die eigentlich gar nicht seine Tante war. Aber sie gehörte zur Familie dazu – bis sie von den Nazis ausgesondert und als schwangere Jüdin nach Auschwitz deportiert wurde. Ihr Kind starb dort wenige Wochen nach der Geburt. In der ganzen Familie lag ein großes Schweigen über dieses Ereignis. Bis Knut Elstermann den Schritt wagte, das Eis zu brechen. Er fuhr zur Tante nach New York, und dieser Weg führte ihn hinein in unvorstellbare Abgründe, die eng mit dem KZ-Arzt Mengele verwoben sind. Nur langsam tastete sich der Autor gemeinsam mit Gerda in das so lang Verschwiegene, Verdrängte vor – nicht immer spielte das Erinnern mit. Bruchstückhaft tauchen Details auf, für die oft Erklärungen fehlen. Was Gerda nicht mehr weiß, versuchte der Autor durch aufwändiges Nachrecherchieren in Zusammenhänge zu bringen. Die Kreise werden immer größer, ohne das Zentrum aus den Augen zu verlieren.
Schließlich erzählt Gerda von der schwierigen Geburt, die sie ganz allein durchstehen musste. „,Niemand sah in dieser Zeit nach mir. Aber das Kind hat gelebt, auch wenn es winzig war.’ Es gab keine Windeln, dafür benutzte sie ein paar Streifen Papier. Sie hatte nur wenig Milch, aber neben ihr lag eine sehr kräftige Russin, die ebenfalls gerade entbunden hatte. Sie stillte nicht nur Gerdas Kind, sondern noch andere Babys.“ Doch bald wurde es der Russin untersagt, dem jüdischen Kind ihre Milch zu geben. Und Gerda konnte nicht stillen, weil ihr die Brüste abgebunden wurden – wohl mit Gips. Aber da wird das Erinnern nebulös. „Gerda musste tatenlos mit ansehen, wie das Kind neben ihr immer schwächer wurde. Dann sagte sie den Satz, der alle dramatischen Varianten, die ich jahrzehntelang kannte, in einer viel einfacheren und schrecklicheren Wahrheit auflöst: ,Es ist in meinen Armen verhungert.’“
Sechzig Jahre Schweigen liegen vor diesem Satz, Schweigen vor dem Ehemann, Schweigen vor dem Sohn. Denn neben der unvorstellbaren Trauer um das tote Baby kam noch die Scham, das Kind unehelich von einem verheirateten Mann bekommen zu haben. Während Gerdas Tochter Sylvia starb, rückte die Front immer näher. „Die SS zerstörte im November 1944 die Gaskammern, um die Spuren zu verwischen. Aber im Krankenbau band jemand einer jungen Mutter die Brüste ab und ließ sie zusehen, wie ihr Kind verhungerte. Ich stelle mir Schreie und Weinen vor, aber Maren, die Hebamme, sagt mir, dass hungernde Kinder in ihrer Schwäche immer stiller werden. Dies sei ja das Gefährliche daran, dass man ihren Zustand gar nicht bemerke. Auch Gerdas Kind wurde immer ruhiger, bis es aufhörte zu atmen.“
Gerda entkam der Hölle, ihr Wille zu leben, war noch nicht erloschen. Als im Januar 1945 mit der Evakuierung des KZ begonnen wurde, schickte die SS Tausende Menschen auf Todesmärsche. „Barfuß, durch Schnee und eisigen Wind wurde auch Gerda mit einem Tross entkräfteter Frauen Richtung Bahnhof getrieben.“ Das Ziel: Ravensbrück. Gerda konnte fliehen, ein deutscher Soldat wurde ihr Retter.
Knut Elstermann lässt die Geschichten von Gerda, von ihrem Retter, von der stillenden Russin und von der eigenen Familie – ganz besonders die der Großmutter – miteinander verschmelzen. Und auch er selbst nimmt ganz bewusst seinen Platz darin ein. Denn der Autor erzählt, wie diese Geschichte sein eigenes Geschichtsbild veränderte. Und auch das Verhältnis zur Zeit. „...fünfzehn Jahre vom Kriegsende bis zu meiner Geburt, fünfzehn Jahre von der Wende bis heute, die Abstände werden immer unerheblicher. Es liegt wohl an Gerdas Erzählungen und an den eigenen, sich aufschichtenden Lebensjahren, dass mir diese Vergangenheit heute sehr viel näher ist, als in den Kinder- und Jugendtagen, als ein allgemeines ,Interesse’ die Einfühlung überlagerte, als alles zum Stoff der unbekümmerten Betrachtung wurde. Es ist, als sei ein Vorhang weggezogen worden.“ Er gibt auch dem Leser den Blick frei und ist doch nicht mehr als eine Ahnung - von dem Unvorstellbaren.
==== JERUSALEM POST
Jan. 12, 2006
Taking two lives as a whole
BEN NAPARSTEK, THE JERUSALEM POST
Two Lives: A Memoir
By Vikram Seth
After Vikram Seth became a household name with A Suitable Boy in 1993, his mother asked him to write a book about his great-uncle, Shanti. Many mothers of famous writers have surely asked as much - the difference is that Seth went along with it. Shanti, a dentist who lost his arm in World War II, was in his late '80s. Seth began interviewing him about his life, hoping to alleviate Shanti's loneliness following the death of his Jewish-German wife, Henny.
Yet it wasn't until he uncovered a trunk of Henny's letters - detailing her flight from Nazi Germany and the slaughter of her mother and sister in the death camps - that Seth was sure he had the material for a book.
"I suddenly realized how much could be drawn in of the history of their times," he says.
Henny never discussed her experiences in Hitler's Germany with Shanti. Her silence led Shanti to believe she hadn't grieved for her family, who he lodged with as an Indian dentistry student in Berlin in the 1930s.
"What really deepened my view of her was to see at what psychological cost she refused to draw a line under what had happened to her - to say, 'To hell with Germany. Let them starve. Let them freeze. I don't care what happens. I can't bear the pain of it,'" says Seth. "At a time of great shortage in England, she helped those who had stood by her family, sometimes at great risk to themselves."
Seth is philosophical about the morally ambiguous case of Henny's sister, Lola, who, until her own eventual deportation to Auschwitz, worked for a Jewish agency that the Nazis co-opted to facilitate their extermination plan.
"You have to ask yourself how anyone would have acted," he says. "That was not collaboration. What was collaboration were people who took over the Nazi worldview, advanced their careers, lined their pockets, or betrayed their friends."
Seth initially planned to open Two Lives at a dramatic juncture in their biographies - Henny's unexpected death, or Shanti's loss of his arm. Eventually he opted for a sedate opening instead: "When I was seventeen I went to live with my great-uncle and great-aunt in England." As he explains, "I thought the reader should be drawn quietly into the book so that they would feel enticed rather than bludgeoned into reading it."
Shortly after Shanti's death, Seth learned that his great-uncle disinherited his entire family in the final months of his life. Shanti signed over his 800,000 estate to his friend, Colin, who arranged for his 24-hour care. Seth, who refused Shanti's offer to be an heir, wasn't as shocked by the disinheritance itself, as he was at learning that Shanti had summoned relatives to maliciously announce that he had cut them out of his will.
"My image of him suffered for a while until I came to a more balanced understanding of the situation, which is that you cannot judge people partially, you have to take their life as a whole," he says. "You have to understand that people are not always themselves as their bodies decline and have a sometimes ineluctable effect upon their mind."
On the strength of an eight-page outline, Seth snared a 1.3 million advance for Two Lives - reportedly the highest figure ever paid for a literary non-fiction book. Despite having written the best part of the first draft, he refused to let publishers see his work-in-progress. "I don't want to see publishers' faces, but rather just the faces of my characters, when I'm writing the first draft," he says.
BEFORE HIS 1400 page family saga A Suitable Boy made him a celebrity, Seth was a poet with a small but devoted following and economics degrees from Stanford and Oxford under his belt. Economics was an interest, he says, without being an obsession. But poetry was.
At Stanford, while taking a break from feeding economic data into a spreadsheet, he strolled into a secondhand bookshop where he discovered Alexander Pushkin's verse novel Eugene Onegin. Mesmerized by the range of moods evoked by Pushkin's poetry, Seth delayed his studies to write a novel in verse, The Golden Gate - a satire of San Francisco yuppie culture.
Seth always thought of himself as a poet rather than a fiction writer. Reading Pushkin enabled him to make the transition to prose. "Had it not been for his Eugene Onegin, I'd have never dreamed of writing a novel in verse, and if I hadn't written a novel in verse, I don't think I'd have ever written a novel in prose," he says.
From Stanford, Seth headed to China to research a doctorate on Chinese rural economy. While his thesis fell by the wayside, his experiences generated a travel book, From Heaven Lake. At 35, Seth returned to India to sponge off his parents, bent on writing the novel that would become A Suitable Boy. He thought he was embarking on a two-year project that would culminate in a 200 page book. Instead, the manuscript grew into a seven-year labor, after he wrote a wedding scene and felt compelled to trace the stories of the different guests' lives. "I felt increasing fear that I would never find a publisher for a book as long as that, set in an obscure part of Indian history, that didn't have any glossary and didn't have sex," he says.
Still, Seth rejected Faber's offer of 25,000: "It just didn't seem like much for seven years work." After tinkering with the manuscript for another several months, Seth's agent sold A Suitable Boy for 250,000. It went on to clear a million copies. At a time when Indian literature was under the spell of Salman Rushdie's magic realist plots and perfumed prose, A Suitable Boy unfolded with the leisurely pace and transparent style of a Victorian novel. If critics initially begrudged Seth's streak of sentimentality, they nevertheless became livid when the book failed to make the Booker Prize shortlist, declaring the judges a gang of philistines.
Seth says that his economics background is reflected in the attention he pays to the work lives of his characters. "My books aren't just about emotions and love and the things which people sometimes say romantic novels are about," he says. "They are also about work. Work plays a huge role in people's sense of themselves and their lives but often novels don't pay much attention to work."
He divides his time between India and Great Britain and wherever his research takes him. "I'm very reclusive," he says. "When I'm in England people don't know I'm here. When I'm in India people don't know I'm there. Just as I would say I'm more a poet than a novelist, I would say I'm more a private than a public person."
It's unsurprising, then, that Seth felt ambivalent about opening up Shanti and Henny's lives to the reading public. He knew that Henny would have blanched at the prospect. Yet, he says, "there's a different duty to the dead than the living. The living can be hurt, the dead cannot. It behooves one, when writing a biography and not a hagiography, to describe people faults and all. That gives those aspects of their lives which are noble a greater believability."
Sun., January 15, 2006 Tevet 15, 5766
When cruelty removes its mask
By Ruth Almog
"Mauthausen," by Iakovos Kambanellis, translated into English by Gail L. Holst-Warhaft, Kedros, $19.95
mibergen belsen, 1944" ("Poems from Bergen Belsen, 1944")
Wiersze z Bergen Belsen
by Jurek Orlowski (Uri Orlev), translated into Hebrew by Uri Orlev, Yad Vashem,
The collection of poems by Uri Orlev, Israel's greatest author of books for children and young adults and winner of the Andersen Award, has nothing in common with the novel by Iakovos Kambanellis, Greek's foremost playwright in the postwar era, except for the historical setting World War II and the fact that both writers spent time in concentration camps. Orlev, who was born Jurek Orlowski, spent 22 months of his life with his brother and aunt in the "special camp" at Bergen Belsen in Germany; over two years of Kambanellis' life were spent at the Mauthausen camp in Austria. Uri was a boy, and at some point during his stay in the camp he wrote poems in Polish, of course. Kambanellis was a young man in his 20s at Mauthausen and his book, a novel of love, was written in the early 1960s, some 15 years after the end of the war.
All this may account for the differences between the two
books, and also for the difference between Kambanellis' novel and other stories
I have read about Mauthausen. Those narratives left me with the impression that
Mauthausen was the most horrible of all the camps, and it became fixed in my
memory as hell on earth. Kambanellis' work, however, does not support this
impression, a fact that has caused me much puzzlement: The novel, after all,
does recount the same horrors, albeit in a softened way.
The narrator of the novel and his lover both suffer from nightmares after their release. She refuses to speak about her dreams, and he tries to cajole her by pointing out that both of them can recount everything they witnessed while awake, but are unable to describe a single nightmare, an interesting insight for psychologists to contemplate. The narrator reminds his lover of how they used to walk in the camps and see thousands of dead bodies, limbs, organs. There is no horror, he tells her, that they cannot relate not even the story of how the Nazi SS troops at the crematoria would order the Jews who worked there to eat the corpses of the dead, and then shoot anyone who refused. What remains, he asks her, that the two of them cannot speak about?
Prisoners, Kambanellis recalls, used to "heal" each other by telling tales of the atrocities they had seen or heard. They would sit in a circle for hours and exchange their stories. I think that this pathos-filled rhetoric, perhaps the product of narrative-based methods of therapy, actually softens the horrors and therefore no longer works on the reader in the same way as Primo Levi's ?If This is a Man? and other Holocaust memoirs.
Mauthausen was distinguished by its regime of terror and by the "stairs of death" in the granite quarry, where some of the prisoners worked. They mined rocks and were forced to carry them up the stairs; most did not survive. Hunger prevailed and prisoners were worked to death, badly abused and often executed - a "horrible and indescribable" reality, as one survivor wrote. Kambanellis' novel recounts all this, as well as the instances of cannibalism, for which the camp is also known. He tells of them, but softens the horror through the romance between the narrator and his lover, a petite Lithuanian woman whose encounter with this fellow survivor after the war saves her from her own memories.
Kambanellis does not return home when most of his friends do. His conscience compels him to remain with the Jews awaiting their travel permits to Palestine. Most of the plot is set after the war and follows the love story between the two survivors, neither of them Jewish. Ultimately, the woman returns to her Italian husband and leaves her lover, who goes back to Greece. This is almost a suspense novel, fascinating and hard to put down. Yet we need to remember that the Mauthausen quarry claimed the lives of 38,120 Jews, and that the camp as a whole is responsible for the deaths of nearly 200,000 human
Bergen Belsen was an enormous camp, divided into five facilities that were built by 500 Jewish prisoners from other camps. These inmates were housed in the "prisoners' camp," which they built first. To its side was the "special camp" (Sonderlager), which in mid-June 1943 received two shipments of some 2,400 Jews from Poland who had papers from other countries, mainly in South America. Among them was Uri Orlev, who describes all this in a special prologue to his book of poems, 15 in all, which he wrote after arriving at the camp at the age of 12. From this camp, 1,700 prisoners were sent to Auschwitz in late October 1943 and killed there almost immediately. In early 1944 another 350 were similarly transferred and murdered. Of the 350 prisoners remaining in the special camp, 266 had permits to immigrate to Israel.
No work was performed at the camp. At first, Orlev recounts, the situation was tolerable - that is, there was food and even a canteen where his aunt traded bread for the notebook in which the boy wrote his poems. Bread also bought Uri and his brother English lessons. With time, however, the situation grew more dire and the bread, too expensive.
Another camp housed those who were citizens of neutral countries: Spain, Turkey, Argentina, Portugal. They enjoyed relatively good living conditions. Then there was the "star camp" of Jews who were supposed to be exchanged and were therefore not issued prisoners' uniforms. They were required to wear a yellow Star of David, thus giving the camp its name. Most of the inmates there were from Holland. In early 1944 there were new Jewish arrivals from Tunis, Tripoli and Benghazi in Libya, as well as 200 Jewish women from Drancy in France, and a few hundreds from Albania and Yugoslavia. The fifth camp, housing Hungarians, is where the famous shipment organized by Israel Kastner was sent. Some 700,000 inmates died at Bergen Belsen of disease and hunger, including the two Frank sisters, Anne and Margot.
The poems of young Orlev move between hope and youthful idealism and the recognition that the world is "entirely contaminated": "It seems that cruelty has removed its mask / ... The world is evil, brutal, greedy, despicable / Few are the good people, few are the pure of heart." The poem ends with the words, "Already the smell of spring is in the air, the groves are blooming green / I will pass through my life as someone stepping on fresh grass / I will trample evil, even if only a bit of it / You, if you so wish, can cling to greed / I yearn to go through life an honest man."
In the poem "And Life Goes On," the boy writes: "Millions of people fall everywhere, / Lost between bombs and grenades / And we ask if the cheeses are round today / And we ask if you've picked enough flowers." The poem ends by starkly articulating its own oscillation between horrible extremes: "There death extends its dreadful claws / And here a simple, everyday conversation burns. / The fields are flooded with blood, black ravens scream / And life goes on / Goes on and on."
The most powerful poem is the 10th one, entitled "A Tragicomedy of the Camp" and written on the anniversary of the family's arrival in Bergen Belsen. This long poem describes life in the camp and the different characters living in the shack: "Anyone who can sells to the Croatians / Pants, underwear, / Bread is a currency / And the cheating runs in all directions." The same figures reappear in No. 14, "My Neighbors." Throughout the book, the writing is filled with Orlev's unique brand of wry humor. While pathos and rhetoric soften the horrors in Kambanellis? novel, sharp humor deepens the atrocity in these very mature poems written by a young boy.
Orlev's book includes photos of his notebook pages, and the Polish original appears alongside the translation. Photographs of Uri, his brother and aunt are also included, along with a picture of their murdered mother, drawings made by the boys' English teacher, and one photograph from the Atlit immigrant detention camp, where the author and his brother arrived alone and where they lived until they were taken in by a kibbutz.
L A Times 23-12-2005
A Holocaust saga, obscure no more
H. G. Reza,
A Newport Beach woman credits her survival as a Dutch teenager during the Holocaust to small miracles and human kindness, which she chronicled in a deeply personal book, Flory: Survival in the Valley of Death.
Her 264-page saga got only modest attention when published in 1998 and sold 3,000 copies. Now the story by Flory A. Van Beek is getting international buzz, with word that ABC and actor-director Mel Gibson's production company are eyeing it for a miniseries in 2007.
"It's been overwhelming," she said this week. "All of a sudden reporters from all countries are calling me at all times. Some days I just let the messages collect on my answering machine. I don't know how they got my unlisted number."
"But," the 81-year-old retired legal secretary said, "I am happy that someone is interested in my book, because it keeps the story of the Holocaust alive."
Her book documents how she and her husband, Felix, survived many close calls. It is also a love story that tells how a 16-year-old girl and her 28-year-old boyfriend - both Jewish - were brought together by Nazi tyranny. They have now been married for 63 years.
The story came to Hollywood's attention through independent movie producer Daniel Sladek, who sold the idea to ABC. He said he considered "a plethora of Holocaust survivor stories" before deciding on Van Beek's book.
Sladek's parents, who were active in the Orange County Jewish community before moving to Colorado last year, gave him a copy of the book, published by Santa Ana-based Seven Locks Press, he said.
"My father is a Holocaust survivor. So the Holocaust is something that's very meaningful to my family. Flory's book struck me as unique and loving," he said. "At its core it is a love story set in the background of the Holocaust."
Van Beek sat in the living room of her Newport Beach home on a recent afternoon telling how she and her husband were saved from the Nazis' grasp by three Dutch Christian families who hid them for three years.
The two served in the Dutch Resistance to the Nazi occupation and survived the war, but each lost many family members in the death camps. Flory Van Beek's sister and a brother were also hidden by Dutch families and survived, as did another brother who escaped to Spain and joined the British army to fight in Europe.
The couple were married in 1942 at the insistence of the first man who hid them. A devout Catholic, he did not want them living together in his house unless they wed, said Van Beek.
In 1948, the couple immigrated to Los Angeles, bringing along little more than hope and the diaries, newspaper clippings and documents they collected while in hiding. They have lived in their Newport Beach home since 1962.
The only link to the past that is evident in their living room is a portrait of their son, Ralph, who was 16 when he died of brain cancer in 1970. Flory Van Beek said he died without knowing about his parents' experiences.
"It was just too painful and overwhelming to talk to him" about the Holocaust when he was young, she said. "Then he got sick."
Miracles saved her and Felix from the Nazi death camps, she said.
The pair was first saved in November 1939, when British sailors plucked them out of the frigid North Sea after the SS Bolivar, the Dutch ship upon which they were fleeing to South America, struck two mines and sank.
War clouds and anti-Semitism were beginning to envelop Europe, and Flory's mother had encouraged her and Felix to flee.
Both were severely injured by the ship's explosions and were hospitalized for six months in England. They returned to the Netherlands in May 1940, about a week before the German army invaded.
Van Beek said another miracle occurred in June 1942. The Nazis were starving the Jews, she said, and she walked to a canal with the idea of committing suicide. Piet Brandsen, a leader in the Dutch Resistance, pedaled by on his bicycle and told her to follow him to his house. He and his family hid the young couple for more than a year before he was betrayed by a Dutch collaborator, she said.
On the day of the betrayal, the Gestapo descended on the family's home. The Van Beeks hid in a cramped place at the top of the stairs and heard a German soldier walking up.
"We both knew how many stairs there were and counted each one as he climbed," said Flory Van Beek. "But before he could get to the top a German voice yelled at him, 'There is nothing upstairs!' and he climbed down. That was a miracle."
Afterward, the pair were hidden by the Hornsveld family. In the 1950s, the couple sponsored two Hornsveld brothers when they immigrated to America. One now lives in Costa Mesa.
Flory Van Beek said she considers the publication of her book and the proposed miniseries "other miracles in my life."
"My book isn't eloquent, but I wrote what I thought and felt. I still have my mother's goodbye letter she wrote when the Germans took her away," she said, her eyes glistening with tears. "Can you imagine your mother writing you her goodbye before she is killed? I tried to put that emotion in my book."
An ABC spokeswoman said the miniseries "has not been given the green light yet." But a writer has been hired for the screenplay, and this month an ABC executive said Gibson's possible involvement could help the network market the project.
A harrowing look at the sufferings of the smallest victims of Hitler's Reich.
Reviewed by Ruth Kluger
Sunday, January 29, 2006; BW07
WITNESSES OF WAR
Children's Lives Under the Nazis
By Nicholas Stargardt
Knopf. 493 pp. $30
Wars used to be something adult and manly -- armed men fighting their equals in well-defined battles that fit into the history books and could be memorized by schoolchildren. Civilians were always victimized, of course, but that was swept under the rug, except by pacifists and radical humanitarians like the painter Goya in his series "The Disasters of War." The wars of the 20th century, by contrast, increasingly targeted a civilian population that included these same schoolchildren, who were now both war's accidental victims, as in air raids, and its deliberately selected victims, as in genocides or the murder of the physically and mentally "unfit."
Nicholas Stargardt tells this uncomfortable tale at its bitterest moment, from the point of view of the children who perished under Nazism or lived through it. They left an astonishingly large legacy of documents, diaries and letters, as well as notes taken by adults who cared for them -- material that used to merit little attention from historians. Stargardt quotes from dozens of these testimonies.
This is the second massive account within the last year that documents the perceptions and sufferings of children during World War II, following Lynn H. Nicholas's fine Cruel World: The Children of Europe in the Nazi Web . Inevitably, the two books overlap in some respects, but mostly they complement one another. For example, in their accounts of the Nazis' misnamed "euthanasia" program (actually the killing of the mentally retarded and physically disabled), Stargardt concentrates on in-depth analyses of selected case histories, while Nicholas opens with a perspective on eugenic theory that flourished in the English-speaking world, most prominently in the United States. Nicholas casts a cold eye on those who could help but did not, while Stargardt is more concerned with illuminating the inner world of the children.
The child witnesses here are both boys and girls, "Aryans" and Jews. The author, who teaches history at Oxford and is himself the son of a German-Jewish refugee, recreates everyday life in the Nazi Reich with multilayered quotes that provide a sense of intimacy unmatched by any other narrative I know. At the same time, the reader never loses sight of the larger historical framework.
We learn about reform schools for German children who were considered a threat to the system because they did not toe the Nazi line. We experience Hitler's 1939 invasion of Poland from the point of view of Jewish and Christian children alike. We get a generous sampling of the struggling, developing minds of Jewish children in the so-called "ghetto" of Theresienstadt (actually a concentration camp) outside Prague; we see these same children in the extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they witnessed horrors the likes of which their counterparts in civilized society would not be allowed to watch in a movie. We hear from determined German youngsters drafted to anti-aircraft duty; we see the misery and death of children caught in the Allied firebombing of Hamburg and other cities; we follow German 14- to 16-year-olds who were drafted into the Volkssturm (the Nazi militia mobilizing civilian males for a last defense of the Reich) and who tried to stop American tanks with mindless fanaticism -- and a predictably high casualty rate; and we see children turning into perpetrators as well as victims.
The worst horrors, as always, are the scenes and recollections from the Holocaust. Stargardt discusses the effects of trauma, the sometimes mind-boggling efforts of the victims to "normalize" the experience while they were caught up in it and the survivors' attempts to integrate it into their later lives. But he also vividly presents the suffering of the postwar German population, especially the period of starvation and the anguish of children watching their mothers being raped by Soviet occupiers. He points to the confusion of values that prevented one group of victims from understanding the sufferings of another -- notably the German refusal to acknowledge that it wasn't "international Jewry" but they themselves who brought on the war and the retaliatory bombing of the Royal Air Force. By using firsthand material, Stargardt conveys with startling directness the loss of perspective and the narrow-mindedness that suffering imposes.
Also especially hard to read, just when we think the agony is all over and done with, are the author's detailed accounts of civilian dislocations after the war -- when large population groups like the Sudeten Germans were once more made homeless and when the Holocaust's Jewish survivors found that they were not welcome in their former homes in such East European countries as Poland, forcing them to return to Germany and seek safety in the zones under U.S. or British occupation. In several European countries, the juvenile crime rate increased, especially (and understandably) among those who were starving. Children became thieves and sold stolen goods, but they also committed more violent crimes. Their would-be educators in the camps for the so-called Displaced Persons complained that the youngsters had little enthusiasm for work, apparently not realizing that work to them meant slave labor under the Nazi whip.
Reading about these years, one can only marvel that Europe recovered so thoroughly. The war children who survived to see a more prosperous world did not become a social burden (as many seem to have feared at the time) but became productive and responsible citizens. Their wounds were real enough, but they coped -- and cope -- with them privately, and with dignity. If there is any hopeful message to be gotten from this harrowing book, it is the wonder of human resilience. ·
Ruth Kluger is the author of "Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered."
==== JERUSALEM POST
Apr. 26, 2006
Who will tell our stories once we're gone?
ADAM SHARON, THE JERUSALEM POST
By Amir Gutfreund
Translated by Jessica Cohen
In my hometown of Toronto, Holocaust survivors migrated to the Downsview neighborhood to begin their new life in Canada. Staples of a typical Jewish community slowly emerged. Jewish schools were founded, kosher bakeries opened and synagogues were built and grew, including Beth David B'nai Israel Beth Am, known for its massive stained glass windows behind the rabbi's pulpit.
The art at Beth David included typical biblical symbols and modern day images of an Israeli flag and IDF soldiers coupled with Holocaust motifs. Synagogues set ablaze are meant to symbolize Kristalnacht. Deportation trains head toward Auschwitz-Birkenau and the infamous gates marked "Arbeit Macht Frei." A crematorium and concentration camp barracks are noticeable. Yellow Stars of David dot the area beneath the Holy Ark. The number 6,000,000 stands out.
As a youngster, it felt odd attending friends' bar mitzva ceremonies, and more recently, their weddings at Beth David Synagogue. For behind the joy, images of hell were on display. And yet, while reading Our Holocaust by Amir Gutfreund, I kept recalling those stained glass windows. The powerful imagery and symbolism on display at Beth David Synagogue also appears in this wonderfully haunting debut novel. Joy is coupled with sadness; celebration is mixed with mourning.
Take the opening pages, for instance. Grandpa Lolek is introduced, described as the parsimonious elder with a sorrowful past who resides in Haifa. He is a miser whose penchant for frugality was born during a different era on the European continent. Empty bottles are collected and returned to reclaim deposits. Mostly depleted liquid soap in his bathroom is diluted and refilled with water. Tea bags are used repeatedly before being inspected by Grandpa Lolek, who would estimate the bag's vitality and decree its fate. It's a process watched by Amir and Effi, the children of Holocaust survivors (like author Gutfreund himself), whose childhood was pockmarked with incidents of such oddities.
LOLEK AND his Holocaust survivor friends live in a neighborhood of Haifa, but they are stuck in a netherworld defined by trauma. Food is never thrown out at home. Why? "Because people died for a single potato. Because people turned their parents in for a morsel of cabbage. Because people were so starved that they ate wooden planks in their huts in Buchenwald."
Amir and Effi spent one summer with a family at a kibbutz playing an invented game called Buchenwald: "The rules of the game were simple: No eating."
That changed when adolescence set in and the two boys "abandoned the Shoah." Instead, they were consumed with their raging hormones, Maccabi Tel Aviv's victory in the European Cup and Yizhar Cohen's Eurovision Song Contest win. But as the generation of survivors begins to age and pass away, Amir's tortured memories and the stories he's been told creep to the surface. As much as he might want to, he can never forget.
Thus ends "1993: Our Laws," the first section of Our Holocaust, the anchor of the book's three sections. The chapter is packed with various characters, narratives, peculiar tales and troubling imagery, creating a choppy and disjointed plot - a literary tool used to convey a sense of madness.
In contrast, the subsequent chapter, "1991: Grandpa Yosef's Travels" is fluid, linear and ripe with rich descriptions. As Grandpa Lolek rested in a hospital bed, unwell, Grandpa Yosef, another family member of sorts, tells an unbelievable story of survival during the Holocaust when he was forced on a horrific journey with an SS officer from town to ghetto to concentration camp to liberation.
Gutfreund must have heard this story many times. How else could he recount this information in such particular detail? Rather than answer this question and spoil the conclusion, the afterword offers a window into the author's motivations and offers a small surprise.
The final chapter ends with the deaths of Gutfreund's characters, a natural coda to an unnatural life lived by the subjects of the novel. Yet this chapter, titled "Yariv" and named for Gutfreund's son, sets the tone for future generations who must contemplate life after the survivors pass away. Gutfreund is forced to reconcile his family's past with Yariv's future. What kind of life does the author want for Yariv and how will the Holocaust shape future generations of Gutfreunds?
The same question can apply to the younger congregants of Beth David synagogue looking to create a healthy new world for their children, yet remain truthful to their parents and grandparents' experiences during the Holocaust. Will (and should) a day come when the stained glass at Beth David Synagogue is no longer palatable for the worshipping crowds?
For Amir Gutfreund, Our Holocaust is an attempt to make peace with his family's Holocaust experiences. And yet, a nagging question remains. "Who will tell the stories?" the author asks, when the generation of survivors pass away. Perhaps the answer is Amir Gutfreund.
The writer is the television producer of White House Chronicle, a political talk show that airs on PBS.
Fri., May 05, 2006 Iyyar 7, 5766
Worked to death
By Yehuda Lahav
("Fortress of Death") by Szabolcs Szita, translated from the Hungarian by Moshe
Golan, Maarechet Kibbutz Dalia
Sixty years went by
before the prime minister of Hungary, Ferenc Gyurcsany, found the courage to
admit that the deportation of Hungarian Jewry to the death camps was the work of
the Hungarians themselves, and that without the cooperation - forced but often
enthusiastic - of tens of thousands of Hungarian gendarmes, government officials
and railway workers, Adolf Hitler and his henchmen could not have pulled off the
Nazis' speediest roundup in occupied Europe.
Some 470,000 Jews were living within the expanded boundaries of Hungary (after the annexation of parts of Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia) in 1944. Between May and July of that year, within a span of seven or eight weeks, 173 trains deported 401,000 Jews, almost all of them to Auschwitz. The general assumption is that these transports were from the provinces and rural areas. Less well known is the fact that 12,000 Jews were also deported from Budapest. Adolf Eichmann himself boasted about the unprecedented success of this operation.
In speaking of the
tragedy of Hungarian Jewry, it is the fate of these 400,000 deportees that
usually comes to mind. But there was another facet of this tragedy for which the
Hungarian authorities bear almost exclusive responsibility, at least in the
early stages: the fate of over 150,000 Jewish men who were conscripted into what
were called "forced-labor battalions." The death rate in these battalions may
have been even higher than among deportees to Auschwitz. Some of the units
comprised 4,500 men. By the end of the war, 100 at most were still alive.
This facet of the Hungarian Jewish tragedy is the focus of "Mivtzar hamavet" (called "Halalerod" in the original, and "Fortress of Death" in English) by Hungarian scholar Prof. Szabolcs Szita, now admirably translated into Hebrew by Moshe Golan. The book first came out in Hungarian in 1988 - i.e., before the fall of communism. That in itself attests to Szita's status as one of the pioneers of academic Holocaust research in his country. His first book about the Munkaszolgalat, or forced-labor battalions, was published in 1983. Since then, he has written 16 books on the deportation of Hungarian Jews, the forced-labor battalions and Righteous Gentiles who saved Jewish lives.
Szita also played an important role in shaping the character of the Holocaust museum that opened two years ago in Budapest, and he is one of the moving forces behind the Holocaust seminars for Hungarian teachers held annually at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
From the start of the battle against the Soviet Union, the Hungarian authorities used Jewish forced-labor battalions (which also included members of minority groups and "political troublemakers") to carry out combat operations such as clearing away mines, in which the rate of casualties was obviously very high. Members of the labor battalions were not armed, of course, and did not wear military uniforms. They were poorly equipped, and suffered more from illness and frostbite than ordinary soldiers. In addition, they were brutalized by their officers and military superiors, many of whom were not only anti-Semitic but genuine sadists.
Later on, and especially in 1944, when the war effort and the conscription of new recruits depleted the industrial and agricultural workforce in Germany (the number of workers dropped from 39 million in 1939 to 28 million in 1944), the Germans increasingly resorted to using convicts and prisoners of war as a source of manpower (from 0.3 million in 1939 to 7.1 million in 1944). They also used the Hungarian Jewish labor battalions.
All in vain
Szita's book describes the fate of these forced laborers, sent to fortify the line of defense in western Hungary which, according to Nazi plans, was supposed to safeguard Vienna. Their work was in vain, as the author reports in plain, unemotional prose: "Within days, the Soviet army sped across western Hungary, proving that the trenches, which had taken almost six months to dig, were of no value." All this useless work, however, took a terrible toll in suffering, hunger and human life.
The eagerness of the Nazis (and the Hungarian fascists) to use the Jews as a source of manpower - ultimately, it was slave labor - dovetailed with their desire to be rid of those who were physically unfit and no longer "useful." The author lists dozens of outstanding writers, artists and actors, some of the leading lights of Hungary, who were conscripted into these forced-labor units and perished in the madness. It has taken 60 years for responsible, historically aware Hungarians to admit that the Holocaust harmed not only the Jews, but Hungary itself, with serious repercussions for the country's social and cultural development.
Szita's book overflows with detailed descriptions of barbarity, of cold-blooded mass murder - of bullies who, even in defeat, saw it as their supreme duty to march the bedraggled remnants of the labor battalions to the Mauthausen camp. This death march started out with 50,000 men. According to the testimony of SS officers, very few survived.
This is not an easy book to read, but it should be required reading for Holocaust deniers everywhere. On the other hand, it is a monument and a memorial to each and every member of the forced-labor battalions. And it should be on the reading list of every Jew who wants to know more about the "six million."
Yehuda Lahav is a journalist and writer. His book "Scarred Life" was published by Gvanim.
The Killing After The Killing
Sunday, June 25, 2006; BW01
Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz
By Jan T. Gross
Random House. 304 pp. $25.95
In 1996, Poland's prime minister, Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, invited a Jewish American writer to speak at a commemoration marking the 50th anniversary of the Kielce pogrom. The speaker reminded his listeners that if Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek and Sobibor were German initiatives, the killers this time on the ground were Polish, their language Polish and their hatred entirely Polish. He took advantage of the occasion to demand that the Polish government remove the crosses and other religious symbols that, by chance, he had seen a few years before strewn in the ashes at Birkenau, where almost all the burned dead had been Jews. The next day, virulent, deplorable -- essentially antisemitic -- attacks appeared throughout the Polish press.
I was that speaker.
Some time later, the great Israeli historian Israel Gutman spoke to me briefly about the Jedwabne pogrom, in which virtually all of that small Polish town's 1,600 Jewish residents were killed in a single day in July 1941, and a new and important book, Neighbors , by Jan T. Gross, whose revelations about Jedwabne promised to embarrass Poland and jolt the conscience of the world.
A professor at Princeton now, Gross is a Polish Jew who knows his subject. Neighbors -- a book of high moral quality -- described the massacre of Jews at Jedwabne as not carried out by Germans but by native Poles. Published in English in 2001, it had formidable impact in America and elsewhere.
One can easily predict a similar effect and success for his new work, Fear . You read it breathlessly, all human reason telling you it can't be so -- and the book culminates in so keen a shock that even a close student of the Jewish tragedy during World War II cannot fail to feel it.
Bitterness, envy, murderous rage: Everything that is low, primitive, vile and ugly in the human animal is laid bare and analyzed on these pages. Reading this book -- repugnant and revolting as it can be -- one is seized by an impulse to close it and say: No. It is not possible for so many human beings to have loosed their savage hounds on fellow human beings -- men, women, children, all of them innocent and defenseless in a place that was just waking from a long nightmare.
Fear is a word we use often in reference to dictatorships and totalitarian regimes; it is, for want of a better term, employed inadequately to speak of the Holocaust. In a dark time, on a continent overcome by the din of triumphant Nazism, fear gripped the occupied countries and all nations in Germany's shadow; but, mostly, fear gripped the Polish people, whom Hitler wanted reduced to slavery, and the Jewish people, singularly destined for isolation, humiliation and total extermination. Had these last two communities acted logically, they might have understood that they faced a common enemy and worked to combine their strengths to help each other. Unfortunately, that was not to be. Gross describes how Warsaw's onlookers watched young Jewish fighters throw themselves from burning windows during the pathetic yet glorious ghetto uprising in 1943, then applauded when German soldiers set upon them below.
But in this strongly sourced work, another fear emerges. It is that felt by Jews, not during Poland's occupation by the Nazis, but afterward, even as the country was being liberated by the Red Army.
Based on official documents as well as numerous testimonies, Fear recounts events as they unfolded in 1945-46. The most heinous and outrageous cruelties, it appears, were inflicted by civilians, soldiers and policemen on a benighted population of Jewish survivors from hells near and far, who were returning sick, poor, wounded -- orphans beyond hope.
To put it clearly: Like many of us, they had thought all too naively that antisemitism, discredited 6 million times over, had died at Auschwitz with its victims. They were wrong. Only the dead perished at Birkenau; antisemitism itself survived in most places, and mostly in Poland. This is, in sum, what Jan Gross reveals in a style that is at once sober and overwhelming in its very bluntness. There were manhunts, public humiliations, insane acts of brutality. The rare escapees who thought themselves fortunate to return home found their property occupied by strangers who chased them away with scornful cries: "What, you're still in this world?" Eventually, they were made to regret their very survival. Trapping a Jew was reason enough to beat him senseless. Discover another, and pelt him with stones.
This antisemitic blight, all too insidious and thorough, infected every level of the population. There were those who killed Jews in order to steal from them; others who coveted their stores and homes; others, to avenge the Jews' mythical power in communist secret circles; and then there were those who killed for the simple pleasure of it.
There was the official version: Authorities minimized the tragedy's Jewishness. Even as they commemorated the dead, they forgot to mention that they were Jews. And the public version: Jews were barred from civic life -- from schools as well as public office. Traditional antisemitism, too, lived on, fueled by ancient religious prejudices as well as individual and collective hatreds.
Then there were the pogroms. First in tiny villages, followed by those in the big cities. Gross's reader is suddenly thrust into the Middle Ages. In Krakow and in Kielce, those thirsting for Jewish blood didn't hesitate to maim or murder. In these two towns, it began with that old canard claiming that Jews slaughtered Christian children to use their blood for the ritual preparation of Passover matzos. In Kielce, it was rumored, Jews had lured a Polish boy into a cave so that they could murder him. Little did it matter that there was no cave in the local Jewish Committee's building at 7 Planty Street. Little did it matter that, for centuries, the highest authorities of the Catholic Church had repudiated and condemned these accusations as stupid and malicious lies. The Polish population clung to such myths to feed their hatred and rage against the Jews, who were guilty of nothing more than having survived Treblinka and Auschwitz. And more: The Polish clergy in towns and provinces, almost to the last man, chose to guard its silence.
As he has done for Jedwabne in Neighbors , Gross here shows the horror of Kielce in all its aspects. Hatred for Jews seemed to render the whole world blind. Old and young, men and women, soldiers and police -- even boy scouts -- took part in the lynchings. And spectators either applauded or did not care. How to explain so much hate, at so many levels? It is a question for the intellectuals as well as the politicians; neither could have predicted it. Gross quotes Tacitus, who once said, "It is indeed human nature to hate the man whom you have injured." Taking it one step further, the author posits that Polish antisemites detested their Jewish victims for their suffering, which caused such shame: "Jews were so frightening and dangerous, in other words, not because of what they had done or could do to the Poles, but because of what Poles had done to the Jews."
Does it follow that all of Poland was to blame? I do not believe in collective guilt. Only the guilty are guilty; their contemporaries are not. The children of killers are not killers but children. Today, a new generation will assume responsibility for its history. And yet there is this: The past lives on in the present, impossible to forget. Jan Gross forces Poland to confront that past. Just as he forces his readers.
One of his saddest revelations? During the war, here and there, there were Polish citizens with generous and brave hearts who, risking life and liberty, hid and protected Jews. But rather than be proud of such acts, they preferred not to talk about them.
They were afraid of the anger and the recriminations from their neighbors. ?
Elie Wiesel won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. He is the author of more than 40 books, including "Night" and, most recently, "The Time of the Uprooted." This review was written in French and translated by Marie Arana.
On an awful night in Nov. 1938, a Nazi rampage against the Reich's Jews paved the way for the Holocaust.
Reviewed by Michael R. Marrus
Sunday, June 25, 2006; BW04
Prelude to Destruction
By Martin Gilbert
HarperCollins. 314 pp. $21.95
Overnight on Nov. 9-10, 1938, German and Austrian Nazis launched a coordinated, riotous assault on Jews across the expanded German Reich -- burning synagogues, destroying stores, looting houses, beating Jews and sending thousands to concentration camps. The next morning, the boots of the stormtroopers and the Hitler Youth crunched the resulting broken glass, giving the name Kristallnacht ("Night of Broken Glass") to the terrible events that prefigured the Holocaust of European Jewry. "For the perpetrators of the destruction," writes Martin Gilbert in his new history of that dreadful night, "the name reflected their sense of both triumph and contempt: triumph at what they had destroyed, laughter at the thought of the sound of breaking glass. Yet fear and distress were inflicted on every German Jew that night." More than a thousand Jewish places of worship were destroyed; 91 Jews were murdered; 30,000 Jewish men between the ages of 16 and 60 were arrested; 30 Jews apparently committed suicide in Vienna; in Bayreuth, the home of Wagnerian opera, 60 Jewish men and women were locked in a cowshed; in Frankfurt, half of the town's 43 synagogues and houses of prayer were gutted; and in the small community of Bad Soden, Jewish tuberculosis patients were turned out of their "home for consumptives," which was subsequently demolished.
This is grimly familiar ground, but Gilbert has found some new material, consisting mostly of descriptions and recollections by people who lived through Kristallnacht. One of the world's most prolific historians -- he is the author of more than 80 works, including his most important achievement, his magisterial, multi-volume biography of Winston Churchill -- Gilbert brings to bear the historical method that has served so well in the past. "I'm not a theoretical historian -- seeking to guide the reader to a general conclusion," he once told the Jerusalem Report. "I'm quite content to be a narrative chronicler, a slave of the facts." But as anyone who has attempted to write history knows, the facts don't quite speak for themselves, and chronicles don't automatically provide accounts as fluent and absorbing as Gilbert at his best.
Unlike much of the Holocaust, Kristallnacht occurred under the noses of newspaper reporters and foreign diplomats, who painstakingly recorded what they saw. Gilbert assembles their accounts, together with those of the survivors, to immerse us in Kristallnacht and its aftermath, including Jews' frequently desperate efforts to escape Germany and find refuge elsewhere. We read of the terrorization of young and old, men and women, rich and poor, distinguished and obscure -- all of them simply because they were Jews. Oskar Prager, then 9, saw a Nazi stormtrooper wreck the family apartment and crush his birthday wristwatch; Ilse Morgenstern remembered the Nazis' seizing the family piano; and, in an extraordinary but in some sense typical reaction, Batya Emanuel, who was 13 at the time, recalled her father's futile reaction: "Here was Papa striding into the room, with the telephone, which was kept in our parents' bedroom at night, tucked under his arm, and he was in braces, without a waistcoat and jacket. I don't think I had ever seen him not fully dressed before. He nodded curtly in my direction, plugged in the phone and dialled: 'Is that the police? I wish to inform you that the synagogue at the back of Rutschbahn 11 has been broke into and is being vandalised at this very moment -- you are sending your men? Thank you.' "
Tellingly, Gilbert's witnesses register not only the outrage, the cruelty and the brutality but also the generous responses of some Germans and foreign diplomats who tried to help. Countess Maria von Maltzan, for example, whose brother was in the SS, turned her aristocratic bearing to good effect when she surreptitiously rescued victims: "The Countess made contact with members of the Swedish Protestant Church in Berlin, who were systematically smuggling Jews out of Germany. She forged visas, ration books and other documents, and drove vegetable lorries full of refugees out of Berlin." In W?rzburg, at a Jewish teachers' seminary, the caretaker -- apparently a stormtrooper himself, wearing a brownshirt uniform -- warned the youngsters "to dress quickly and run away, because 'they' were burning, looting and destroying synagogues and Jewish homes and shops." From Berlin, the senior British diplomat in Germany, Sir George Oglivie Forbes, telegraphed home on November 13: "I can find no words strong enough in condemnation of the disgusting treatment of so many innocent people, and the civilised world is faced with the appalling sight of 500,000 people about to rot away in starvation."
More than 330,000 German and Austrian Jews escaped one way or another by the outbreak of the war in 1939. Kristallnacht records what they suffered, how they managed to get away and what they remembered about it. Most pertinently, it also records how ordinary people, like most of those who are reading this review, responded to the catastrophe. Gilbert helps us understand them and even, if we choose, imagine ourselves in their place. ?
Michael R. Marrus is the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Toronto and the author of "The Holocaust in History."
By Thane Rosenbaum
The son of Holocaust survivors, Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist and law professor and the author of the post-Holocaust trilogy, "The Golems of Gotham," "Second Hand Smoke" and "Elijah Visible.
June 25, 2006
FIRST, a confession. I am not indifferent to Poland. But for the Holocaust and its immediate aftermath, I would have undoubtedly been born a Polish son. Though a citizen of the United States, I consider myself a casualty of Poland — not one of its ghosts, of which there are millions, but one of its orphans, of which there are a sizable number as well.
Bringing these heartfelt feelings of loss and displacement to Jan T. Gross' "Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz — An Essay in Historical Interpretation" makes for an especially powerful and, yes, painful reading experience. Though gripping, the book is not a page turner. It's more like a literary exercise in wincing and squirming. Indeed, "Fear" succeeds precisely because of how well it disturbs. It is illuminating and searing, a moral indictment delivered with cool, lawyerly efficiency that pounds away at the conscience with the sledgehammer of a verdict.
"Fear" follows Gross' critically acclaimed 2002 book, "Neighbors," in which he examined the 1941 slaughter of the Jews of Jedwabne, Poland — a massacre committed by Poles that took place separate from the Holocaust and before the ovens of Auschwitz reached maximum intensity. With his latest book, Gross continues to direct the moral spotlight on Poland. Yet here, rather than focus on a village, "Fear" takes on an entire nation, forever depriving Poland of any false claims to the smug, easy virtue of an innocent bystander to Nazi atrocities. And the time frame for Gross' investigation is, paradoxically, after Auschwitz, when the reality of German crimes and Polish complicity was most indefensibly apparent.
Why paradoxically? Well, after all, the Holocaust was primarily a Polish tragedy. Poland had been the cradle of the Diaspora, the center of its religion, scholarship and art. And, most important, Poland was where most of the world's Jews lived. Though two-thirds of Europe's Jews perished during the Holocaust, Gross points out that the sacrifice in Poland was even larger, more than 90% of the country's Jews. Polish Jewry accounted for more than half of the Holocaust's 6 million Jewish victims. If you were Polish and Jewish, by the war's end, you were most likely dead.
Though Poland's credentials as one of Nazism's chief victims are legendary, the country's Holocaust past, specifically its relationship to the fate of Polish Jewry, is more slippery. When it comes to moral condemnation, Poland is generally treated only as the crime scene. It supplied the real estate for all those death camps and most of its victims, but the murder machinery that plowed through Poland was definitely German-made.
Gross' "Fear," however, isolates a startling postwar paradox: Within two years of the liberation of Auschwitz, whatever tiny remnants of Polish Jewry that had managed to survive were either killed or forced to flee. These finishing touches on the Final Solution were not perpetrated by Nazis. Instead, they came at the brutal hands of former Polish neighbors.
Gross is quick to identify the moral implications of this Polish phenomenon. As a nation, the Poles suffered tremendous losses during the Nazi occupation. Several million Polish Christians were killed, separate from the country's 3.2 million Jewish dead in the Holocaust (although the Poles were predominantly casualties of war, not victims of genocide). Poland was not a collaborationist nation in any conventional sense. Indeed, Poles heroically resisted the Germans, and, although statistically unimpressive, some did righteously save the lives of Jews. Yet, as "Fear" alleges, there was great collusion and shared interests between Nazis and Poles when it came to Jews. Poles actively and exuberantly applauded what the Germans had in mind for the local Jewish population.
Given the suffering of the Poles, however, one would have imagined that Polish Christians would have treated the country's returning Jews — few as they were — with tremendous sympathy and compassion, welcoming them back with tearful expressions of neighborliness and solidarity. According to Gross, the opposite was the case, and Polish intellectuals and elites were dumbfounded by the vile anti-Semitic attitudes of Poland's majority underclass. Pogroms occurred. "Fear" reads like a barbaric nightmare, except that the Jews had barely yet awoken from Auschwitz, a far more horrific and unimaginable dream. The sensory overload of inhumanity must have been psychologically catastrophic. Jews stumbled back into Poland's cities and towns like punch-drunk skeletons, only to experience more beatings and death.
Jews were chased, murdered and robbed by their neighbors, tossed off trains and looted, clubbed over the head with iron bars. Polish Boy Scouts were recruited to find Jews, whereupon Poland became a shooting gallery with Holocaust survivors as targets. Jewish children who had been given to Poles for safekeeping were not returned to their parents or relatives. Jewish property claims were denied. Their neighbors were no longer neighbors; they had moved in and taken over.
Ground zero for this menacing display of Polish vigilantism was the Kielce pogrom, in July 1946. A Christian boy who went off to pick cherries was reported as being kidnapped by Jews and stashed away in a synagogue basement. The fact that the boy recanted his story and that the synagogue had no basement was immaterial. The mere rumor of an attempted ritual murder was enough. A Polish mob, assisted by local police and the occupying Soviet army, dragged the town's Jews out onto the streets, killed them and then plundered their possessions.
There is bone-chilling normality to Gross' account of the Kielce pogrom. It erupted as a spontaneous crime spree and shakedown, and yet it happened in broad daylight, with great acquiescence and unanimity, as if Poland had been in rehearsal for centuries. The events of that day hover over the book like a black cloud of emotional and moral detachment. The killing and looting of Jewish neighbors was done openly, deliberately and without regret; as Gross points out, even today, the Poles who witnessed what happened in Kielce are stunningly unrepentant.
How did this happen?
Gross debunks the postwar Polish myths about why the Jews deserved their fate. Jews never kidnapped Christian children, or, for example, used Christian blood for the making of matzo. Jews were not responsible for bringing Communism to Poland, nor were they Communist party leaders. The fact is, hardly any Polish Jews survived the Holocaust. And those who had survived were too psychologically damaged and physically wretched to pose a threat to anything except perhaps to someone's guilty conscience. Moreover, Jews did not possess wealth that would have inspired resentment. Whatever wealth they once had was now in the possession of Poles. And that, according to Gross, was the problem.
The annihilation of Polish Jewry resulted in the immediate upward social mobility of Polish Christians. Hitler delivered a devastating blow to Polish nationalism, but a secondary effect of his racial rampage gave an artificial boost to the self-esteem of the Polish peasantry. They emerged from the Holocaust as a nouveau middle-class, a post-atrocity artifact of spoliation and unjust enrichment. And they weren't about to return either their ill-gotten gains or their newfound status. Nor did they wish to be reminded of what they had done. And the best way to avoid discomfort was to not have to look into the eyes of the neighbors they once betrayed.
Gross concludes that anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz has no historical antecedent. Yes, Polish-Jewish relations have been marked by casual, even fashionable anti-Semitism. But according to Gross, the postwar variety is different. After Auschwitz, anti-Semitism was motivated by fear. But this time it was the Poles who feared the Jews. They feared them not because of their strength, wealth, cunning or even their God: What scared them was that they were still alive, that a fraction were able to return and point a finger of accusation or try to reclaim what was rightfully theirs. So, according to Gross, to cope with reverse guilt and as a coda to the Nazis, Poles killed 1,500 more Jews over the next two years as a twisted expression of collective shame. And, even then, the fear remained.
The Holocaust is ultimately a ghost story, and Poles have many reasons to be haunted. Theirs is a nation cursed by absence. Gross' "Fear" should inspire a national reflection on why there are scarcely any Jews left in Poland. It's never too late to mourn. The soul of the country depends on it.